Not all Black and White at Mount Pleasant

1 11 2015

In a Singapore now overrun by the clutter of the modernised world, there is nothing that better celebrates the Singapore we have long abandoned better than the “Black and White” houses we still see scattered across the island. Characterised by their whitewashed and black trimmed exteriors and set in lush green surroundings, the houses – built in the early decades of the twentieth century to house the colony’s administrators, carry themselves with a poise and elegance that is sadly lacking in the 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 have a look into one of these houses, a good number of which are today leased out for quite a tidy sum by the Singapore government. One that I recently got to see – thanks to arrangements made by a friend and fellow blogger James Tann and with the kind permission of the house’s occupant, was at 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 at #159 is one of a cluster of similar houses built in the 1920s along the north facing slope of Mount Pleasant to serve as residences for the fast developing municipality’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 burial grounds to its northwest at the area of Bukit Brown, there is much to admire about the house and its expansive grounds. I was to learn from James that what was most interesting about the house was however neither its architecture nor the beauty of its setting but a secret it 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 was photographing the house for a book on the Adam Park Project, shared what had been learnt about #159 and about some of the houses in the vicinity from piecing together evidence found in history books, maps and also what had quite recently been uncovered on the grounds. The project, which is led by battlefield archeologist Jon Cooper, seeks to establish what did go on in and around Adam Park in the dark days of the first half of February 1942 from archaeological evidence.

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.

Jon Cooper paints a picture of the events of the last days leading up to what does seem to have taken place on the morning of 15th February 1942, the day of the surrender, in a video that relates to a dig carried out at #159 early this year. Meeting with stiff resistance from the Cambridgeshire regiment who held the ground for three days at Adam Park, the Japanese forces move slightly to the north. On the evening of 14th of February, the Japanese break through positions held by 4th Battalion of the Royal Suffolks at the Singapore Island Country Club and at Bukit Brown. 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 mixed of units including the 125th Anti Tank Regiment, the Royal Engineers and elements of the 9th Northumberland Fusiliers, have the area fortified for a Japanese attack, with the “Black and White” houses there serving as defensive positions.

Cooper tells us also of two well documented attacks on Mount Pleasant that follow. One comes from an account recorded by Henry Frei, who once taught at the NUS, based on 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 Cooper refers to speaks of attempts 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. Following two failed attempts to retake it, the house is hit with 12 anti-tank shells fired from a gun positioned at the junction of Mount Pleasant Road and Thomson Road. The house catches fire, is cleared of Japanese troops, and eventually burns down. Evidence provided by 1948 aerial photographs point to the house being one with a new roof at #160. This lies right across Mount Pleasant Road from #159 and seems also to be confirmed by a Singapore Free Press article of 25 June 1948 reporting the discovery of the remains of 8 soldiers on the grounds of a “bombed house” at 160 Mount Pleasant Road.

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.

The far end of #159’s garden, was also where one set of remains was located, that of a British officer. Although the remains were subsequently moved to Kranji, one of the aims of the dig at #159 was to find evidence of the that may have possibly been left behind.

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 evidence of that was found, the main focus of the dig, which took place at the near end of the huge garden, did meet with success. With some of what had lay buried in this area having been exposed following the removal of a tree and the gradual washing away of the topsoil by rainwater, the dig there managed to uncover thousands of pieces of ammunition. The find, which includes both spent cases and a cache of unused ones that had deliberately been buried, confirms that there had been fighting in the garden of #159, which would have been used as a staging point for the attack on #160. The large quantity of unused ammunition of British origin, provided evidence of the final positions of British troops as they made their preparations prior 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 is probably a lot more that currently lies buried on the grounds of #159 and the other “Black and White” houses in the vicinity. It may be that the grounds of these houses may never reveal their secrets. Based on what’s seen in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan, it does seem that the area will be the subject of future redevelopment, perhaps as part of the intended Bukit Brown estate on the evidence of the two MRT stations in the vicinity. It would be a shame if and when this happens as not only will we lose a green part of Singapore with its “Black and White” reminders of a forgotten age, we will lose a link to a chapter in our history that must never be forgotten.

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.