The streets of the Mahallah: Middle Road, where the Doh Jin Hospital once stood

24 03 2010

Continuing on my stroll through the streets of the Mahallah from Selegie Road, I came to what would have been another of the main streets of the Mahallah, Middle Road. What we see of Middle Road today bears little resemblance to the Middle Road that I had known in the 1970s, a Middle Road that I had passed by every weekday on the bus back from school, let alone having much to suggest that it was another thriving part of what was the Jewish Quarter all those years back. There is only the David Elias building, which I had mentioned in the previous post on the streets of the Mahallah, which reminds us of this forgotten past, and nothing much else.

The former Middle Road Hospital stands next to the David Elias Building along Middle Road.

The view down the middle of Middle Road. The road bears very little resemblance to the Middle Road of the 1970s that I was familiar with. There is very little there except for the David Elias building to suggest a Jewish past.

Next to the David Elias building, stands another building that has survived the extensive renewal that Middle Road has seen in the last few decades, not a reminder of the Jewish past, but of a past associated with another ethnic group – the Japanese. The building displays the letters “SIC” prominently at the top, standing next to an empty plot of land – which one could see as a suggestion perhaps, of its previous use. The building today houses Stansfield College, a private college, associated with a previous occupant, the Singapore Institute of Commerce (SIC), which is associated with Stansfield. The building was in fact, up to 1988, one that did house sick occupants, when it was used by the Middle Road Hospital. The building had actually started its life in 1940 as the Doh Jin Hospital, to serve what was a growing Japanese community in the area. The Japanese Consulate was in fact housed nearby, in the building that became Mount Emily Girls’ Home. The hospital became the Middle Road Hospital after the war in 1945, and was referred to by a rather antiquated sounding name, the Social Hygiene Hospital. During the 1970s, I remember my parents would refer to the hospital as a “skin hospital” – it was a centre for the treatment of skin diseases. Along with skin diseases, the hospital was notorious as the centre for treatment of venereal diseases (VD), which we now referred to commonly as STDs or sexually transmitted diseases.

A sign bearing the letters "SIC" perhaps giving a indication of the history of the building? The building had started its life as the Doh Jin Hospital in 1940 and became the Social Hygiene Hospital in 1945.

Another view of what was once the Social Hygiene Hospital.

There is also a little off-shot of Middle Road between the two buildings, which ends in a cul-de-sac, where, on the side of the David Elias building, stands a rather quaint looking building (254, 256 and 258 Middle Road) with a set of bay windows, and a façade very much in the style of the David Elias building. I am not certain of what the origin of this building is. There is in fact an identical building on the reverse side facing Short Street.

Off Middle Road between the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road Hospital, a rather quaint looking house with a set of bay windows stands at the cul-de-sac.

The David Elias building as seen from the cul-de-sac. Part of it was once used as the Sun Sun Hotel. There was a Sun Sun Bar that existed then at the bottom of the hotel.

Crossing Prinsep Street, there is now the IOI Plaza and Prime Centre which stands on a stretch occupied by a row of pre-war shop houses up to the 1980s – I remember this stretch particularly well for a colourful row of three sign makers housed in a rather ramshackle looking single storey shops, sandwiched in between double storey houses. The display of signs and vehicle number plates would catch my eye along with the “Rainbow Signs” signboard on one of the shops. There is still a sign maker, Sin Lian Hua Signcrafts in the area, housed across Middle Road in Sunshine Plaza. The shop has a display, which in a muted way, is reminiscent of the displays of the original shops on Middle Road.

Prime Centre and IOI Plaza stand where a row of shop houses where the colourful displays of three sign makers caught the eye.

Display at Sin Lian Hua Signcrafts in Sunshine Plaza - reminiscent of the displays of the row of three sign makers along Middle Road.

That there was concentration of the sign makers offering vehicle number plates along that stretch of Middle Road was  possibly due to the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) that was located on the opposite side of Middle Road, where Sunshine Plaza now stands, in a compound which also contained the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB). The ROV, which is now part of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) had occupied the premises since 1948, and it was only in 1983 that the department shifted to its new premises in Sin Ming. The building which the ROV occupied had been built as a court house in 1930. The POSB also occupied the premises in Middle Road up till 1983, when it shifted to new premises built on the site of the former Catholic Centre at the corner of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road. Across Prinsep Street from Sunshine Plaza an empty plot of land now stares glaringly at the observer, where once there were more pre-war shop houses, bringing me back to Selegie Road. I don’t remember there anything notable that stood on this plot of land, except for a five storey building which stood out among the mainly two storey shop houses around it like a sore thumb. This building housed the Straits Clinic, which is now in IOI Plaza.

Sunshine Plaza stands in the plot where the compound where the ROV and POSB was once housed.

Rain in the shadow of Sunshine: A couple stands in the rain looking at the David Elias building and Stansfield College in the shadow of Sunshine Plaza.

An empty plot of land between Prinsep Street and Selegie Road, where more shop houses once stood.

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My stroll through the streets that made up the Mahallah: Selegie Road

17 03 2010

Wandering around the Selegie Road area today, there is very little of the old that is left to remind us of the Selegie Road that existed in the when I was growing up in the 1960s, and certainly even less of a time when you might have thought you were in a different world altogether. That was a time we have long left behind as Singaporeans, a past that we have perhaps chosen to forget.

Signs of the times: Selegie Road at the turn of the 21st Century ... a very different world from when it was a bustling street within the Mahallah.

The area today boasts of spanking new edifices, the School of the Arts for one and Wilkie Edge being another, representative perhaps of the Singapore we have become, somewhat cold and grey, seemingly perfect and lacking in identity, much like Huxley’s Brave New World. Interspersed with the new kids on the block are several older structures built in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Peace Centre, Selegie House and the former Selegie School, as well as some pre-war buildings that have hitherto managed to escape the wrecker’s ball.

Spanking new buildings now stand in what was once the Mahallah.

It is the pre-war buildings that provide a glimpse into the forgotten past, when it was part of an area referred to by its inhabitants as the Mahallah, or “place” in Arabic. Of these, two, the David Elias building at the junctions of Selegie Road, Middle Road and Short Street, and the Ellison building which is located at the end of Selegie Road provide the clues as to whom the inhabitants of the Mahallah were, not Arabs as one might have assumed, but members of the Diaspora, the symbol of which, the Star of David, is displayed prominently on the façades. It was a comment on my post on Selegie Road, from a reader Mamadondi, who lived in the vicinity from 1958 to 1978, who suggested a link between the two buildings that prompted me to take a stroll through the area in an attempt to acquaint myself with this past.

Selegie Road today is a mix of modern buildings and pre-war buildings such as the former Tiger Balm building and the David Elias building.

The former Tiger Balm Building at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road - a surviving pre-war building on Selegie Road without a Jewish past.

The Mahallah was the “place” where the many working class Baghdadi Jews who had settled in Singapore around the turn of the twentieth century, called home, a Jewish Quarter so to speak. They went about the daily business, just as they might have done on the streets of old Baghdad or Calcutta where many had originated from, living amongst the Indian, Eurasian and Chinese families in the area. The area included Selegie Road, Short Street, Wilkie Road, Sophia Road, Prinsep Street and Middle Road. That Arabic was a common language and that the two buildings mentioned both display the Star of David on their façades, provides an appreciation for who the area’s inhabitants were. It was common to see Jews dressed in Iraqi attire, with men topped with a fez, as the new immigrants sought to recreate a familiarity of where they had arrived from, within the surroundings of their new world. The large Jewish families that lived in the area were relatively poor, many with ten or more children, and most were cramped in the many small two storey houses that were common in the area. Many were small traders, rabbis and bakers who came to seek a better life or to serve the community, some following their more successful brethren, for the promise of success. Living in the Mahallah, many struggled to make ends meet. However, it was from the adversity of living in these conditions that many in the community succeeded in life, with many prominent and successful Singaporeans emerging out of the Mahallah, among them Jacob Ballas and Harry Elias.

The David Elias Building with Stars of David displayed prominently provides a link to the area

On this point, it must be said that wider community of Baghdadi Jews had in fact seen tremendous success, with many living in stately mansions away from the Mahallah, or close by on Mount Sophia, among them the Elias family and Mannaseh Meyer. The community also provided Singapore, with its first Chief Minister, David Marshall – the son of an Baghdadi immigrant, Saul Marshall. The Elias family had through their patriarch, Aaron, who passed away in 1902, amassed a huge fortune from the opium trade. At the point of Aaron’s untimely death, the mantle was taken up by the eldest son, Joseph Aaron Elias. The family was known for its stately mansion by the sea on the East Coast, as well as a holiday villa in Tampines which provided Elias Road in Pasir Ris with its name. Several buildings including Amber Mansions that stood on Orchard Road where the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station is today is attributed to Joseph. The David Elias building was built by David J. Elias, who was the second cousin of Joseph Aaron Elias, and brother-in-law, having married Joseph’s sister Miriam, and was a successful import and export merchant in his own right. The building which was designed by the prominent colonial architectural firm, Swan and MacLaren, and built in 1928, contained many offices and shops and the offices of David’s company, D. J. Elias and Company.

Floor tiles on the five-foot way of the David Elias building.

The Ellison Building as seen from the junction of Rochor Canal and Selegie Roads.

At the end of Selegie Road at its junction with Bukit Timah Road, stands the Ellison building which I mentioned in a previous post. The origins of the buildings are rather vague, having been described in an infopedia article as being built for a Jewish lady named Ellison. It could very well have been for a Flora Ellison, having been put up in 1924 by Issac Ellison, a Romanian Jew who owned an Iky’s Bar near Raffles Place which was apparently quite a popular nightspot. Issac was married to Flora who was a Baghdadi Jewess who had come from Rangoon.

Issac (Ike) and Flora Ellison (Source: Joan Bieder's "The Jews of Singapore").

I guess it is hard to imagine how the area once was – an aerial view of Eu Villa on Mount Sophia, which incidentally was also designed by Swan and MacLaren, available on the National Archives PICAS site provides an impression of how it would have looked like in the pre-war years, without recreating the atmosphere that existed. It was good to have Joan Bieder’s excellent book, “The Jews of Singapore”, for which much of the factual information provided here is based on, to accompany my stroll through the area, as a guide. Whatever it was … the Mahallah has ceased to exist, living only the the memory of those who lived there … replaced by the modern structures which struggle to recreate the vibrancy that the inhabitants of the Mahallah once brought to the area.

Aerial view of Eu Villa on Mount Sophia from the National Archives PICAS website providing a good idea of how the area looked like before the war in 1940.