Not all Black and White at Mount Pleasant

1 11 2015

With much of Singapore now dominated by the clutter and monstrosities of the modernised world, “Black and White” housing estates are a breath of fresh air. Many of these estates can still be found scattered across the island. Set in lush greener, they contain houses that are characterised by their whitewashed exteriors and their black trimmings. Built in the early decades of the twentieth century, these houses were the homes of the colony’s administrators and wear a poise and an elegance that seems lacking in the residential architecture of the modern world.

The 'black and white' house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The ‘black and white’ house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The rear of the house - with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

The rear of the house – with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

I am always grateful for the opportunity to take a peek into one of these houses, a good number of which are being leased from the Singapore government for quite a tidy sum. One that I recently got to see — thanks to arrangements made by a friend and fellow blogger James Tann with the house’s occupant, was 159 Mount Pleasant Road. Laid out in a style typical of the early “Black and White” house — of single room depth, and with a carriage porch arranged under a projecting second storey verandah, the house is one of a cluster of similar houses built in the 1920s along the northern slope of Mount Pleasant as residences for the fast developing colony’s Municipal Councillors.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

Located close to the top of Mount Pleasant, one of the high points in the series of undulations that extend to the municipal burial grounds to its northwest in the area of Bukit Brown, there is much to admire about the house and the expansive grounds it has been provided with. From James, I also discovered that what was most interesting about the house was not so much its architecture nor the beauty of its settings, but a secret that the house and its grounds held for some seventy years.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway - again typical of an daly 'Black and White' house design.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway – again typical of an early ‘Black and White’ house design.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

James, who photographed the house for a book on the Adam Park Project, shared what had been learnt about No 159 and the houses in the vicinity through the piecing together of evidence found in history books, maps and also what had been unearthed on the grounds. The project, which is led by battlefield archeologist Jon Cooper, seeks to establish from archaeological evidence, what went on in and around Adam Park in the final days of the battle for Singapore in February 1942.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

In a video on the dig that took place on the grounds of No 159 Mount Pleasant Road earlier in the year, Jon Cooper paints a picture of the events of the last days leading up to what seems to have happened on the morning of 15th February 1942 — the day of the surrender. Japanese forces, having met with stiff resistance from the 1st Cambridgeshire regiment, who had been holding the ground for three days at Adam Park, decided to move north. On the evening of 14th of February, the Japanese were able to penetrate positions held by 4th Battalion of the Royal Suffolks at the Singapore Island Country Club and at Bukit Brown. In retreat, the Suffolks retreat, falling back across a valley (which would be the low ground at Jalan Mashhor / Gymkhana Avenue), to positions on Mount Pleasant. Here, a mix of units including the 125th Anti Tank Regiment, the Royal Engineers and elements of the 9th Northumberland Fusiliers, brace for a Japanese attack and have the area fortified with the “Black and White” houses along the edge of the ridge serving as defensive positions.

In the video, Cooper also tells us of two well-documented attacks on Mount Pleasant that would follow. One comes from an account recorded by Henry Frei, who once taught at the NUS, through interviews with Japanese veterans. This account makes mention of an attack on “Hospital Hill” which wipes out a whole company of Japanese troops.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

Another account that Cooper refers to, speaks of the attempts that were made on the morning of 15th February to retake a house that had been infiltrated by the Japanese. The house, on the north side of Mount Pleasant Road, is described as as hard to take due to its elevation below the road. After two failed attempts to retake it, the house is hit with twelve anti-tank shells which were fired from a gun positioned at the junction of Mount Pleasant Road and Thomson Road. The house, which catches fire, is cleared of Japanese troops before burning down. With the help of a 1948 aerial photograph, Cooper was able to identify this house as being No 160 through its new roof, which lies right across Mount Pleasant Road from No 159. An article in the Singapore Free Press dated 25 June 1948, which reports the discovery of the remains of eight soldiers on the grounds of a “bombed house” at 160 Mount Pleasant Road, provides further evidence. 

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

Remains were also found at the far end of No 159’s garden. They belonged to a British officer and were reburied in Kranji War Cemetery. An aim of the dig at No 159 was to find if anything else belonging to this officer could be found on the grounds.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

While no further evidence was found of the officer, the main area of focus of the dig taking place at the near end of the huge garden, did meet with success. The recent removal of a tree coupled with the gradual washing away of the topsoil by rainwater provided a huge clue as to where to carry out this dig, through which thousands of pieces of ammunition were uncovered. The find, which includes both spent cases and a cache of unused ammunition that had deliberately been buried, confirmed that there was fighting in the garden of No 159, which would have been used as a staging point for the counterattack on No 160. The large quantity of unused ammunition, which was of British origin, also provided evidence of the final positions held by British troops as they made their preparations to surrender.

Mount Pleasant Road served as the final battle line before the capitulation.

Mount Pleasant Road, seen here running between #159 and #160, served as a final battle line before the capitulation.

There probably is a lot more that lies buried in and around No 159 and the “Black and White” houses in the vicinity and it is possible that the grounds of these houses may never reveal their secrets. Based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan, the area will be the subject of future redevelopment — perhaps as part of the intended Bukit Brown estate and on the evidence of the two MRT stations that have been planned for. It would be a shame if and when this happens. Not only will we lose a lush green part of Singapore with its “Black and White” reminders of a forgotten age, we will also lose a crucial link to a chapter in our history that we must never be forget.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.


More photographs of 159 Mount Pleasant Road

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The mystery of Bukit Gombak

13 03 2014

An area of Singapore that does seem to have an air of mystery about it is Bukit Gombak. The location of what reputedly was one of Singapore’s most haunted places, Hillview Mansion, which once stood high on its eastward facing slope, the hill and its environs has also gained a somewhat sinister reputation for other ghostly encounters, some of which seem to have been attributed as the cause of several unfortunate incidents that have taken place in the hill’s disused water filled quarries.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

Besides the supernatural, a mystery that is of a less sinister nature is that of a concrete structure. Now in a state of collapse, the structure stands at the top of a steep incline that runs up from a cut leading to the former Seng Chew Granite Quarry. The structure is one that was documented by my friends from the One° North Explorers, who had first stumbled upon it sometime in 2005 when it was in better shape and was being used to house a makeshift shrine (see: The Forsaken Quarry of the West And the Mysterious Shrine).

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several secrets.

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several ghostly secrets.

It was in the company of James Tann, a long time resident of the area, and Andrew Him and Chris Lee of One° North Explorers, that I was to  pay a visit to the structure over the weekend, with the intention to search for further clues as to what it may have been.  From James, we were to learn quite a fair bit that wasn’t just confined to the area’s history, but also to the area’s geology. It was from the depths of his vast local knowledge that I was to discover that the rocky ground on which I had been standing on was in fact one of the oldest rock formations that I could stand on in Singapore (see: Singapore Landscapes: the secret lake).

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

With the area being one that had a strong connection with the military – the British having maintained a military installation and radar station on the ridge line that ran from Bukit Gombak to Bukit Panjang, and the Japanese having set up camp on the hill during the occupation, James had suspected that the collapsed structure might have been a Japanese built pillbox from World War II. There was also a suggestion from the One° North Explorers that it could have been a blasting shelter, as one might have expected to find on the grounds of the quarry.

More of the structure.

More of the structure.

Part of the collapsed roof.

Part of the collapsed roof.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

Bashing through.

Bashing through.

Standing on its foundation of Gombak norite and in its collapsed state, there wasn’t much more that the structure did give away. What did seem like its flat roof, had completely caved in, burying whatever clues that might otherwise have been discovered under it. The only remnant of the structure that seemed to be left standing was a wall of concrete bricks with little else but a semi-corroded steel backing plate that might have been used to act as a support for a mounting inside the structure.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A close-up of the wall.

A close-up of the wall.

Built into the contours of the slope on the side of the quarry, there was also evidence of what did seem to be a substantial concrete structure. That might possibly been erected to act as a blast barrier – supporting the suggestion that what was there may have been that blasting shelter, along with the fact that the collapsed structure had its entrance on the slope away from the quarry. Kim Frost, a WWII vehicle expert,  did also unearth a grove on the top of the thick layer of concrete that does resemble a drain – possibly to provide drainage from runoff flowing down the slope.

Another look at the wall.

Another look at the wall.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

From another angle.

From another angle.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

While all does seem to point to the structure being a blasting shelter, that is still this lingering suspicion that the structure could still be a military one, including it being an entrance to a tunnel – similar to what we do see of the tunnels at Marsiling that was recently in the news, especially so when a newspaper report I came across does give evidence of their construction at Bukit Gombak.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

The report, in the 17 November 1953 edition of The Straits Times that was headlined “$50 MIL. OIL PIPE PLAN IS ABANDONED“, relates to the abandonment of  what it called a “top-secret project”, that is spite of half the budgeted sum already expanded in the twelve years of effort, interrupted by the war, put into carving out tunnels and oil storage tanks under Bukit Gombak. That was all part of an attempt to build what would have been a hidden storage facility, capable of holding “hundreds of thousands of gallons of petrol [sic]” to fuel the Far East Fleet based at the Naval Base.

A concrete block.

A concrete block.

The project would have seen some fourteen underground oil tanks built along with access and maintenance tunnels and a pumping station, and with a network of pipelines laid. From the report, we can surmise that work would have started in 1941 with the Japanese continuing with it during the occupation. The Royal Navy recommenced work on it in 1946 before abandoning the project in 1953. The report does mention that the tunnels and tanks were filled up after the project was stopped as well as “several miles of underground pipes” dug up.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling, which may have been similar in construction to the Gombak storage facility.

This certainly is an interesting parallel to set of tunnels that have been found at Marsiling that was the subject of a recent WWII related tour organised by the National Heritage Board. While that, located on what was fringe of the Naval Base, is thought to have been built as an aviation fuel storage facility, the one at Bukit Gombak located away from the Naval Base, was being built to serve as a fuel storage for the naval fleet.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

With the military presence continuing at Bukit Gombak and the developments that have taken place around the hill, there is little more evidence that can be found of what the structure might once have been. It may also not be long before the structure disappears completely – survey markers seen in the area do show signs there is recent interest in perhaps the redevelopment of the area, which does mean that we may never unravel the mystery of what the collapsed structure was.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden - probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden – probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

More evidence of the secret garden.

More evidence of the secret garden.