An enlightened space

4 04 2022

Voluminous spaces amply illuminated by natural light are often a visually treat. We have quite a number of these spaces in Singapore, including several that go back to a time when harnessing natural light and ventilation for interior spaces all seemed very logical.

A view of the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

One fine example of a such a voluminous space is the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The hall features a high vaulted ceiling that rises to a height of some 21.6 metres to keep its users cool. A fair amount of natural light also streams into the space through windows placed at its roof’s gable ends and also along the sides, making it quite a joy to behold. The station is one of many designs that have flown off the drawing boards of architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. The design of the hall’s gable ends recalls the one of the firm’s earlier works, the Malayan Motors showroom on Orchard Road.

The former Malayan Motors showroom.

Designed in 1925, the building — like Tanjong Pagar Railway Station — can still be admired. It now stands at the end of a delightful row of conserved buildings opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT station and looking at it, it is not hard to see how the former showroom must have been quite an attraction on Orchard Road when it was completed in early 1927. The showroom’s façade, which is effectively a gable end, is topped by a sunburst like decorative feature that seems very much to be a call for attention. The window arrangement on this face does also seem quite similar to that of the gable ends of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s main hall, although in being dressed to act as the showroom’s street facing façade, is much more elaborately designed.

Similarities can be seen between Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the former Malayan Motors showroom.

The former showroom, which now stands as a marker of a stretch of Orchard Road that was at the heart of Singapore’s motoring trade, has long fascinated me. Other than its showroom on the ground floor, which I had chance to visit as a child when my father purchased a Morris Marina in the 1970s, I’ve often wondered what lay behind the glorious face of building and its multitude of windows. I long imagined that was a showroom or perhaps a workshop on its upper floors and I was rather disappointed to learn from the building’s plans that what did lie under the rather elaborate roof were offices — at least at the point of design. Knowing this, what now intrigues me is why all that elaboration for a set of mere offices? Whatever it was however, it must have been quite a space to marvel at.

What lies behind the face of the Malayan Motors showroom’s gabled ends.

The showroom’s construction came at a time when the motoring trade was on the up and when Orchard Road had established its place a centre for the business of getting around. The street in its post-plantation era, had become a choice residential neighbourhood and both residents and visitors needed a means to move around, especially with Orchard Road being some distance from the commercial area. By the late 1800s, livery stables from which horses and carriages could be hired, lined the street. Hackney carriages plied the street as much as taxis now do, and carriages makers and horse traders set up shop.

Stables on Orchard Road.

The introduction of the motorcar would see a change of fortunes for those involved in the trade. Some of those involved in the business of horses and carriages would become among the first to trade instead in horsepower, leading to the area retaining its place as a hub as the private transportation business evolved. New entrants to the business, with a greater capacity to respond to shifting demands, soon dominated the scene, with names such as Cycle and Carriage and C F F Wearne (later Wearne Brothers) — now household names in the trade, setting up shop in the area in the early 1900s. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, at least a dozen car dealerships had been established in the area close to the entrance to Government House — something I touched on during the Age of Locomotion tour that I recently conducted as part of a series of four historical tours of Orchard Road for Design Orchard’s “The Non Season”.

The “motor” end of Orchard Road, a hundred years apart.

C F F Wearne and Co, one of many success stories associated with the motoring trade, was founded by two Western Australian brothers Charles Frederick Foster Wearne and his brother Theodore James Benjamin (T J B or Theo). The two had come across to Singapore in 1892 and worked their way up from being apprentices at the New Harbour Dock Company to qualify as marine engineers. In 1906, with a startup capital of 700 Straits dollars that Theo provided, C F F Wearne and Co was established as a motor garage in Theo’s brother-in-law’s coach house. This was a time when there were just a handful of cars on the island. In a matter of months, C F F Wearne and Co moved into two shophouse units in Orchard Road. Having secured the agency for Oldsmobiles, the company would expand its portfolio to include makes such as Morris, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Ford and in no time, established themselves as a main player in the business with C F F Wearne and Co becoming Wearne Brothers.

The 1910 built C F F Wearne Garage

By 1924, Wearne Brothers would be producing car bodies locally for assembly to Ford car chassis shipped to Singapore by Ford Canada for the local market. A small assembly plant was established at Penang Lane to handle the work. To avoid any conflict of interests between the Ford agency and other agencies under the Wearne Brothers umbrella, a subsidiary, Malayan Motors, was set up the same year acting as agents for agents for Armstrong-Siddley, Morris, Sunbeam, Packard, Rolls-Royce, Essex, Erksine and Standard motorcars. Malayan Motors operated out of the 1910 constructed C F F Wearnes’ garage, which stood on the site of the 1927 built Malayan Motors showroom at 14-20 Orchard Road. The 1927 building does in fact have the 1910 building appended to it, having been built in front of the older structure. This is quite evident from the difference in floor levels of the older back section and newer front section of the former showroom.

The difference in floor levels between the old and new sections of the building.

Wearne Brothers, which established the first local airline to operate out of Singapore in 1937, Wearnes Air Services (Charles Wearne was also a great aviation enthusiast), would be greatly affected by the war. War not only disrupted Wearnes Air Services operations just as it was about to see returns on the investment and Wearnes’ other businesses operations, war would affect the Wearne brothers in a very personal way. Whilst Charles and Theo made it out of the very last shipping convoy to leave Singapore just a few days before the inglorious Fall of Singapore, two of Charles’ sons would become Prisoners of War. Charles also passed on at the age of 71 in Mandurah, Western Australia, a year before the war ended.

Malayan Motors made its last sale in the showroom in August 1980, after which the company consolidated it operations at its Leng Kee Road branch. The showroom was renovated in 1988 and used by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House and from 2002 to 2020, the building was used by the private school Management Development Institute of Singapore or MDIS.

The former showroom was a witness to war.

Let there be light!


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Motoring Days on Orchard Road

26 11 2020

It is hard to imagine it today, but Singapore’s famous main shopping street, Orchard Road, was once lined with car showrooms and motor workshops. Car brands such as Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, Austin, Morris, Ford, Vauxhall, Fiat … and even Rolls Royce, had a presence there. It was certainly the go-to place to do a test drive and place an order for the still affordable family car, or to send the car for servicing and repair.

Orchard Motors, which was at the corner of Orchard and Bideford Road, became The Orchard in the early 1970s — the home of the (in)famous Tivoli Coffee House (Orchard Motors photo used with the kind permission of Mr Bryan Soh).

Two showrooms that were rather prominent in the regular journeys that I made as a child along Orchard Road between C K Tang and Cold Storage, were Champion Motors and Orchard Motors. Champion, which was then a dealer for Volkswagen is today where Lucky Plaza stands, while Orchard Motors — which dealt with Vauxhalls and Chevrolets, was first converted into The Orchard — a small shopping mall that was better known as the location of the (in)famous Tivoli Coffee House, before being replaced by the Paragon’s original wing.

The Orchard, seen with Lucky Plaza coming up on the site of the former Champion Motors showroom.

Today, only two buildings that bear testament to Orchard Road’s motoring past still stand. One is the wonderfully designed sunburst gabled no 14 to 20 Orchard Road — now used by MDIS, which has a history that goes back to Orchard Road’s early motoring days when it was purpose-built as showroom cum office building for Malayan Motors, a Morris dealer. That stands in a conserved row now opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station — along a stretch of Orchard Road that attracted a host of showrooms and workshops in the early days of motoring and was where Ford motorcars were initially assembled in Singapore. Names such as Universal Cars, a Ford dealer and Borneo Motors, an Austin dealer turned Toyota agent, were also connected with the stretch.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

While it does seem quite well established that the former Malayan Motors showroom is still around, much less has been said about Liat Towers, which was constructed as the headquarters and showroom of Mercedes Benz. Its construction came at a time when the street was on the cusp of its transformation into the world-renowned retail destination that it is today. It would not be long before shopping malls such as Plaza Singapura (1974) and Lucky Plaza (1978) launched the transformation of the street into a retail destination.






Motoring Heritage Day at Tanjong Pagar

5 09 2013

Motoring Heritage Day is back once again at the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. This year’s event will be held on Sunday 15 September 2013 from 10 am to 5 pm. Besides a rare display of some 50 vintage cars, there will also be lots of other activities including guided tours of the station by volunteer guides from the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), an exhibition on the former railway station that I would be assisting the National Heritage Board (NHB) to put up, and talks (see programme below). The event is jointly organised by the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register (MSVCR) and the NHB. More information can be found at the MSVCR’s site and at NHB’s website. I will also follow up with some further information soon.

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First Journeys, Last Goodbyes at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

5 09 2012

For anyone interested in visiting Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, you will be glad to know that it will be opened for a motoring heritage exhibition this weekend (8 / 9 September 2012). Beside the vintage car display that will be put up by the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register (MSVCR), there will also be a chance to take rides on vintage mini-buses and scooters as well as revisit one of the main reasons why many visited the station before its closure – food. As part of the event, there will be an exhibition along the wider theme of transportation heritage for which the National Heritage Board (NHB) which has organised this event has invited me to help put together an exhibition of photographs from the community on the railway and the station. For this, I have got a group of various people that have an interest in the railway and the station to reflect on the journeys made and the last goodbyes that were said in a small exhibition ‘First Journeys, Last Goodbyes’. The exhibition will be opened from 10 am to 5 pm on both days and there will be free shuttle buses at half hour intervals from Tanjong Pagar MRT Station through the day. For those interested in learning more about the station’s history and architecture, guided tours of the station will also be conducted on both days.

A last goodbye on 30 June 2011.


About First Journeys, Last Goodbyes

For close to five decades after Singapore’s independence, the Malaysian railway continued to operate through Singapore on a piece of Malaysia that cut a path into the heart of Singapore. It was perhaps one of the last physical reminders of the common history that the two countries shared.

The southern terminal at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station completed in 1932, was modelled after Helsinki’s Central Station to give it a grand appearance for its intended role. That role, the grand southern terminal of a pan-Asian railway and a gateway to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, was one it never got to play, serving instead as a focal point of any rail journey into or out of Singapore.

The station best remembered for the high vaulted ceiling with huge panels of batik styled mosaic murals of its main hall was one that saw many visitors over the years. That, the experience of the station, as well as the many personal journeys taken through the station would have left a deep impression.

First Journeys, Last Goodbyes brings a few travellers each with a personal story to share of their journeys, journeys on railway or through the station … journeys that will take a long time to be forgotten …

Contributors to the community photo exhibition are Zinkie Aw, Francis Siew, Loke Man Kai, Tan Geng Hui and myself.


Information received on 7 Sep 2012 on the weekend public tours of the station:

The tours will be conducted by PMB’s Volunteer Guides. No sign-ups are required for the tours. Public tours will be:
• Sat, 8 Sep: 2pm, 3pm and 4pm.
• Sun, 9 Sep: 2pm and 3pm