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).


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The changing face of Middle Road

9 04 2010

In looking up on the background of the areas around Middle Road and based on feedback received from a reader, Greg Lim, and my mother who was familar with the area having lived in St. Anthony’s Convent as a boarder, I have a better impression of the colourful history that the area around of which that I was only familiar with going to school at nearby Bras Basah Road in late 1970s has had. Over the years, the various parts around the road had played host to various immigrant communities, communities that have provided us living in modern Singapore with the unique blend of cultures and cuisines that we have today. In roughly a century, it has played host to a thriving Jewish quarter inhabited by many Jews of the Iraqi diaspora; a Japanese community, within which homes, businesses, brothels and even a hospital that catered to the Japanese, were set up, and of course the Hainanese or Hylam community which gave us wonderfully aromatic coffee, the many coffee shops which has become a national institution, and of course Hainanese Chicken Rice, made famous by an outlet that was right on Middle Road.

Middle Road looking northwest from the National Library Building facing Victoria Street. Most of the area has been rebuilt, with taller commercial buildings replacing the mostly two and three storey houses with shop on the lower floor and residential units on the upper floor.

There are several suggestions as to how Middle Road got its name. One that seems plausible was that Middle Road was the mid-point between what was the civic district of the British colonial administration and the Sultan’s palace in Kampung Glam. Another similar to this has it that it was the mid-point between the Singapore and Rochore (now Rochor) Rivers. Another suggestion was that it served as a demarcation line of sorts between the civic area and the ethnic settlements as planned by the early colonial administration. Whatever it was, it was served as a main street and focal point for least two of the ethnic groups that settled around it:  the Hainanese, for whom it was Street No. 1, which was referred to by the other locals as “Hylam Street No. 1”; and the Japanese as “Chuo Dori” or “Central Street”. The Hainanese community, which occupied the southeast end of Middle Road and some of the streets around (Purvis Street was Hylam Street No. 2 and Seah Street was Hylam Street No. 3), was the longest surviving of the ethnic communities in the area, settling initially around Hylam Street (which is within the Bugis Junction complex today), before moving towards the waterfront area around Beach Road, where there is still some evidence of the community. The Japanese, prior to the Second World War, settled along much of Middle Road, close to the Japanese Consulate which was located on nearby Mount Emily (at the building which became Mount Emily Girl’s Home), and the Doh Jin Hospital (which later became the Middle Road Hospital) was built to serve the community, as well as around the areas vacated by the Hainanese community around where Bugis Junction (Hylam, Malay, Malabar and Bugis Streets). The area comprised many dilapidated two storey shop houses, and much it was part of the Japanese red light district before the war, which were demolished in the early 1980s. Opposite Bugis Junction, on the area where the National Library stands, there were some other streets that were occupied by the  Hainanese and Shanghainese communities  (the Shanghainese operated the furniture shops that the Victoria Street area was well known for), which I had mentioned in a previous post on Victoria Street.

Incidentally, the streets running perpendicular to Middle Road had local names as well, with North and South Bridge Roads being referred to as “Main Street” or “1st Street”, being the main thoroughfare between what was known to the Chinese community as the “Bigger Town” where the main settlement of Chinese immigrants was across the Singapore River, and the “Smaller Town”, which was initially planned as a European district, where some of the later Chinese immigrants settled in. The other streets running parallel to North Bridge Road, west of North Bridge Road were numbered in sequence, with Victoria Street being “2nd Street”, Queen Street “3rd Street”, Waterloo Street “Fourth Street”, Bencoolen Street “Fifth Street”, Prinsep Street “Sixth Street” and Selegie Road “Seventh Street”.

I have a few photographs that I have taken on a recent walk through the area as well as some scans of old postcards which would perhaps provide a little glimpse of how the area has transformed over the years …

The face of Middle Road has changed over the last century.

The new has overtaken the old ... very little is left to remind us of the colourful history of Middle Road.

The former Bras Basah Community Centre close to the end of Middle Road near where the well known Swee Kee Chicken Rice (which was started by Mok Fu Swee who pioneered the commercialisation of the dish invented by Wong Yi Guan under whom Mok was an apprentice).

The Kiung Chow Hwee Kuan (Hainanese Clan Association) on Beach Road - evidence of the Hainanese community settling in the area.

A figure on the roof of the temple of the Kiung Chow Hwee Kuan (Hainanese Association) on Beach Road watches over the community.

Shaw Tower on Beach Road stands where the Alhambra and Marlborough Theatres stood on Beach Road at the end of Middle Road.

The view northwest down Middle Road from the area where the National Library building stands where the Empress Hotel once stood on the left and where Bugis Junction stands in place of a row of shops that included the Daguerre Photo Studio.

The same area of Middle Road in the 1970s.

The Empress Hotel at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street which was demolished in 1985.

The Empress Restaurant at the Empress Hotel was well known for the "Queen of the Mooncakes".

The National Library seen from the Hainanese area by Middle Road.

Bugis Junction was built over an area which was part of a Japanese enclave.

The transformation has seen an area of dilapidated shop houses which were once in an area of brothels is now a air-conditioned shopping mall within which some attempt has been made to recreate the former streets that has been incorporated into the complex.

Malay Street today - part of a shopping mall.

The corner of Hylam and Malay Streets from an old postcard (c. 1930s), when it was part of the Japanese enclave.

The corner of Hylam and Malay Streets today - within the area rebuilt as Bugis Junction.

The buildings that used to be St. Anthony's Convent at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street, from which my mother as a boarder had a view of the seedier parts of the Middle Road area.

St. Anthony's Convent in the 1950s.

Another view of the former St. Anthony's Convent building today.