Moulmein Road journeys

6 02 2016

Moulmein Road, a road that has come to be associated with Tan Tock Seng Hospital, has for me, been a road of many journeys. It was in the area where my journey in education began, as well as one which served as a focal point for bus journeys with my mother in my early childhood.

The entrance gate to Tan Tock Seng that once stood along Moulmein Road.

The entrance gate to Tan Tock Seng that once stood along Moulmein Road at Jalan Tan Tock Seng.

My earliest memories of Moulmein Road are of these bus journeys; journeys taken at the end of the 1960s in days when Moulmein Green was still where bus rides for many started and terminated. It was at Moulmein Road that a journey on the notoriously unreliable STC bus service number 1 to the city would begin and where the journey taken to accompany my mother to the hairdresser would have ended.

Corner of Moulmein Green and Rangoon Road (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Corner of Moulmein Green and Rangoon Road (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Sadly for me, little is left of the area to connect me with days now almost forgotten. The green has long since disappeared, as has the end of Rangoon Road that brought traffic out to the green. It was at the same stretch of Rangoon Road that the hairdresser’s shop would have been found, in a row of shophouses set in from the road. All that I now remember of the hairdresser is of the hours spent keeping myself entertained with only the multi-coloured strings of the string chairs, typical of the hair salons of the era, for company.

Moulmein Green was once a starting point or destination for many a bus journey (National Archives photograph).

Another structure that has since gone missing, one that I developed a fascination for, was the rather quaint looking gatehouse (if I may call it that) of Middleton Hospital. Standing prominently across the green from Rangoon Road, it had long been a landmark in the area. It was the hospital’s crest, a black lion displayed over the entrance archway, that lent the area its name in the Hokkien vernacular, “or-sai”, Hokkien for “black lion”.

The entrance to Middleton Hospital at Moulmein Green.

The entrance gatehouse to Middleton Hospital at Moulmein Green (source: https://www.ttsh.com.sg).

The hospital, sans the gatehouse, has since 1985, become Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Communicable Disease Centre (CDC). For the time being, the cluster of buildings of the facility still serves its intended purpose having been set up as a hospital to isolate patients suffering from highly infectious diseases. The hospital, as the Infectious Disease Hospital, was established in 1907 and move to the site in 1913. It acquired the name Middleton in September 1920 when the Municipal Council  thought it fit to recognise the contributions of Dr W.R.C. Middleton. Dr Middleton’s long years of service as the Municipality’s Health Officer from 1893 to 1920, 27 to be precise, was marked by the huge improvements made in living conditions within the Municipality in the effort to contain the spread of diseases such as cholera.

The black lion - still seen at the entrance of the CDC.

The black lion – still seen at the entrance of the CDC.

The hospital, laid out as hospitals in the days when natural ventilation and separation mattered most in preventing of the spread of infectious diseases, features widely spaced and generously airy wards set in calm and green surroundings. Very much a thing of the past in land scarce Singapore, the CDC is now the last such hospital facility still functioning in Singapore. This may not be for very much longer though. It does seem that the facility will soon fall victim to the modern world that Singapore finds hard to escape from. The site has been earmarked for future residential development and the CDC will have to move out by 2018, by which time its new site adjacent to Tan Tock Seng Hospital should be up. With that, the CDC will become the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and the little that is still left to remind us of the legacy of Dr. Middleton is at threat of being further diluted.

The view down Moulemin Road towards the area of the former Moulmein Green .

Two notable buildings that have thankfully escaped the wreckers’ ball, both of which are associated with the control of tuberculosis, are to be found up Moulmein Road from the CDC. The two rather gorgeous buildings are now used by the Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Tuberculosis Control Unit. One is the grand looking turreted structure that recently found fame through a Straits Times article at 144 Moulmein Road.

144 Moulmein Road.

144 Moulmein Road.

The house had once been the home of a Chinese towkay, Mr Lim Soo Ban. Mr Lim was the proprietor of a goldsmith’s shop in Hill Street, maintained interests in a pawnshop and was on the board of Chung Khiaw Bank. He was also a prominent member of the Hakka community and contributed to the upkeep of the since exhumed Fong Yun Thai Hakka cemetery at Holland Plain. Mr Lim passed away in December 1952 as a bankrupt. Already ill with diabetes and tuberculosis, Mr Lim’s death came just two days after the bankruptcy adjudication order was delivered. Despite an order from the Official Assignee’s office to have funeral expenses capped at $5,000, Mr Lim was given a rather grand sendoff. The “grand funeral” is one which my mother, who then lived next door, well remembers. The funeral was reported to have cost $12,000 with a procession that was said to have stretched a mile long.

Lim Soo Ban, second from the right, photographed with Tan Kah Kee in May 1949 (National Archives of Singapore photograph).

The house, I am told, was to remain empty for several years. Attempts were made by the Official Assignee to dispose of it before it came into the possession of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. It apparently saw use as a chapel for hospital staff before housing the Department for Tuberculosis Control, later the Tuberculosis Control Unit.

144 and 142 Moulmein Road.

144 and 142 Moulmein Road, both gazetted for conservation in 2014.

The house next door, 142 Moulmein Road, used more recently by the Department of Clinical Epidemiology, has also a rather interesting past. A residence for the Government Pathologist prior to the war and later a convent, it does in fact have a longer connection with the control TB as compared to no. 144. As the Mount Alvernia convent, it was where the journey in Singapore for the nuns of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood was to begin. The order answering a call to serve at the TB wards at Tan Tock Seng, which was later run by the nuns as the Mandalay Road Hospital, arrived in 1949 and established their first dedicated residence and convent at No. 142.

142 Moulmein Road as Mount Alvernia in 1949.

Buildings of the former Mandalay Hospital.

Buildings of the former Mandalay Road Hospital at Mandalay Road.

The order of English nuns were also to be involved in the care of leprosy sufferers in Singapore. With the help of donations, the order would go on to establish Mount Alvernia Hospital in 1961.  My maternal grandmother had worked for the nuns at no. 142 and had accommodation for the family provided in the servants’ rooms behind the house and it was during this time that my mother witnessed the grand funeral next door.

Another view of 142 Moulmein Road today.

Another view of 142 Moulmein Road today.

Both 142 and 144 Moulmein Road have since been gazetted for conservation as part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan. The 2014 Master Plan, a crystal ball into the future, does also predict a journey of transformation for Moulmein Road that may only have just begun.





Finding the old in the new – a walk down part of Thomson Road

12 01 2013

The stretch of Thomson Road between Balestier Road and Moulmein Road is one that I am well acquainted with. It is a stretch that was an invariable part of the twelve years of almost daily bus journeys to kindergarten, primary and secondary school and best known perhaps for a religious landmark, the Catholic Church of St. Alphonsus, popularly known as ‘Novena Church’ – so much so that the church has lent its name to the area where it is located. The twelve years, from 1969 to 1980, were ones in which there were significant changes made to the road and its surroundings. One big change was the widening of the road which resulted in pieces of property on the west side of the road losing valuable frontages. Another was the addition of a private women’s and children’s hospital which has set the standards for maternity hospitals in Singapore.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened, but does contain a few recognisable landmarks.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened.

The hospital, Thomson Medical Centre, came up close to the end of the twelve years, occupying a plot of land at the start of the south end of the stretch. Known for its innovative approach towards the birth experience of mothers, it does today feature another innovation – the basement of the refurbished building hides one of the first mechanised car parks in Singapore which was added in the mid 2000s. The hospital is the brainchild of a well known gynaecologist, Dr. Cheng Wei Chen, better known as Dr. W. C. Cheng. Built at a cost of $10 million on a terrace on the western side of the road – one of the buildings it was built in place of was a glorious mansion which Dr. Cheng had used as his clinic, the hospital’s opening in 1979 saw a hospital built so to make delivery a less than clinical experience.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr. W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book).

The house which Dr. Cheng used as his clinic was a landmark in the area for many years. Standing on a terrace behind a wall, it never failed to catch my attention over the many bus journeys I made. The house I was to discover, does have an interesting history that goes well beyond the clinic. Besides being the home of Dr. Cheng’s in-laws – Dr. Cheng had moved his practice to the house in the early 1970s from a clinic he operated on the second floor of the old Cold Storage on Orchard Road, the house, was also where the origins of Novena Church in Singapore could be traced to. That I will come to a little later. Besides the clinic, there was another landmark (or so it seemed) that was brought down in 1978 to make way for the hospital – a four storey building named Adam Court and an associated two storey building which served as a garage. Adam Court housed one of the first Yamaha Music Schools in Singapore which moved into it at the end of the 1960s. A check in the online newspaper archives reveals that there was also a private school, Adam Court Educational Centre, which operated for a while in the building at the start of the 1970s. (I have also since posting this learnt that another music school belonging to Mrs. Madeline Aitken, who had once been described as the ‘grand dame of piano teachers’ had occupied the building before Yamaha moved in).

Another view of the mansion - it had been the belong to Dr Cheng's in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there.

Another view of the mansion – it had been the belong to Dr Cheng’s in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The mansion had also been the first premises of the Redemptorist mission which arrived in 1935 – the Redemptorists run the Novena Church in Singapore.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng's clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979. The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng’s clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

What is perhaps today the most recognisable landmark in the area is Novena Church. Its origins can be traced back to the arrival from Australia of the Redemptorist mission in Singapore in 1935. The Redemptorist community is best known for its promotion of devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, devotions referred to as ‘Novena’ from the Latin word ‘novem’ for nine – the devotions involve prayers made over nine consecutive occasions. Devotional prayer services or ‘Novena’ sessions held on Saturdays at the church have over the years proven to be very popular with both followers and non-followers of the faith and the current Redemptorist church, the Church of St. Alphonsus, has come to be referred to as ‘Novena Church’.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979. The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

The Redemptorist community upon their arrival, rented the mansion where Dr. Cheng was to later set up his clinic and only moved from the premises after the Second World War ended, first up Thomson Road to where the Chequers Hotel once stood (which later became the ill-fated Europa Country Club Resort). It at the second premises where the first public Novena devotions were held, commencing in November 1945. It was in 1950 that they moved to their current premises. A new chapel which became the Church of St Alphonsus (after the founder of the order) designed by Swan and Maclaren was built and was blessed on 14 May 1950. Several structures have been added since: a bell tower and residences at the back of the Church were added in 1956; side verandahs in the 1980s; and the St. Clement Pastoral Centre and new residences in the 1990s.

Inside Novena Church - the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Inside Novena Church – the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Even with the more recent additions the appearance of the church is still as recognisable as it was during my younger days. The church building itself is one dominated by triple arc pediment at the front. There is however, a huge change that may soon render that as a less recognisable feature of the church. Although the building has been gazetted for conservation on 8 June 2011, it will soon see itself in the shadow of a new and much larger church building which will come up next to it. This is part of a necessary $45 million expansion which will not only see a much-needed expansion of the church’s seating capacity, it will also see the construction of a basement car park and a new pastoral centre (the present one will be demolished to make way for the new building). Work will commence once 70% of necessary funds have been raised.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building (image source: http://novenachurch.com).

Besides the church, there are also several structures which date back to my days in the school or public bus. There are two sets of private apartment blocks on the same side of the church just north of it which seems to be a constant there. The block further from the church has a row of shops located beneath it. It was in that row of shops where one, Java Indah, had in the 1970s, sold the best lemper udang that I have bitten into. The cake shop was started by an Indonesian lady, Aunty Neo, sometime around 1973 – well before Bengawan Solo started. It was perhaps better known for its kueh lapis, which was also distributed through the various supermarkets. The shop was later run by Aunty Neo’s niece and moved for a while to Balestier Hill Shopping Centre before disappearing. The row of shops also contains a dive equipment shop which is still there after all these years – it was from the shop that I bought my first set of snorkeling equipment back in the late 1970s.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

The dive equipment shop today.

The dive equipment shop today.

Speaking of Balestier Hill Shopping Centre, that was an addition made sometime midway through the twelve year period. Situated across from where Thomson Medical Centre is today, the low-rise Housing and Development Board (HDB) cluster is where the very first Sri Dewa Malay barber shop moved to from its original location further south opposite Novena Church. Sri Dewa possibly started the Malay barber craze in the late 1960s and early 1970s and at its height, boasted of some 22 outlets. That outlet is one that I visited on many occasions – I was (as many of my schoolmates were) often sent there by the discipline master of Balestier Hill Technical School which I went to for technical classes in Secondary 3 and 4. He did always seem to have very different standards for what short and neat hair meant than our own discipline master.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

The cluster which a post office could once be found in has always seemed a rather quiet place. Work on it started sometime in 1975 and was completed in 1977, and it was built partly on land occupied by a row of terraced houses by Thomson Road. What perhaps was interesting was the land behind that row – it and the hill on which the technical school, the first to be purpose built (and two primary schools) came up in the early 1960s. That was once owned by the Teochew clan association Ngee Ann Kongsi and used as a Teochew cemetery around the turn of the 20th century. Evidence of this did surface during the clearing work to build Balestier Hill Shopping Centre – a coffin with some human remains was uncovered at the foot of the hill in December 1975.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

Right next to the road up to Balestier Hill in between the shopping centre and the private flats is a Shell service station which has been there since I first became acquainted with it. My father was a regular at the station, Yong Kim Service Station, from the days when he drove his Austin 1300. Loyalty gifts were commonly given to customers then, and my parents do still have some of the sets of cups and drinking glasses that were given out back at the end of the 1960s.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

Besides these structures, there are also several more which have not changed very much along the road. One is another religious complex, across from Novena Church, where the Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and the San Yu Adventist School can be found – which dates back to the 1950s. Not far from that is a house which has also been a constant there, retaining its original design over the years. The house is one that was affected by road widening – it once sat on a even larger plot of land which was lined with a row of palm trees along the road.

The Seventh Day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

The Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

Just south of Novena Church, across what is today Irrawaddy Road, is another part of the area which had for seemed to be always there. That however is also soon about to change. The cluster of blue and white buildings and a red brick wall in the fenced off compound takes one back to the late 1950s / early 1960s and were once where stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) (before that became corporatised) were located. They have since fallen into disuse and a recent tender exercise conducted by the Urban Redevelopment Corporation means that it will soon see it being redeveloped. The tender was awarded to Hoi Hup Realty Pte Ltd, Sunway Developments Pte Ltd and Hoi Hup J.V. Development Pte Ltd and is slated for mixed use development which will include a hotel.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

Adjacent to the former stores is where two storey shophouses which once lined the road and the Jewish Cemetery behind them have made way for a shopping mall, Novena Square (now Velocity @ Novena Square) and an Novena MRT station. The mall was completed in 2000 and was built by UOL. I remember the shophouses that lined the road for one thing – the image of an elderly man sitting on a chair outside the shophouse has remained in my memory from my upper primary school days. There was also a two storey house that had long stood at the corner of Thomson and Moulmein Roads which always seemed unoccupied and used as a storeroom during my primary school days which has since disappeared.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

One of the things I should perhaps mention is how busy the sidewalk down the slope from Novena Church were in the 1960s and early 1970s on Saturdays when hourly Novena services are held. Many among the thousands of church-goers that came and went thronged the sidewalks in search of treats from the food and snack stalls set up to cater for the crowd. Among the food vendors there were some who were to set up successful baking businesses later after the stalls were cleared.

The sidewalks just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.

The sidewalk just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.


Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention by Mr William Cheng, the architect of Thomson Medical Centre (TMC) that the old Adam Centre or Adam Court (Yamaha Music School) was not demoished but incorporated into the Right Wing Consultant Suite Block. That is where Dr. Cheng has his consultant suites on the ground floor. In addition, a new elevator core for 2 low speed lifts was added and annexed to the new TMC building with an extra floor was added.

Mr Cheng has also added that the TMC Building was designed and built in a record time of 8-9 months. During the construction Dr. Cheng did not maintained his practice at the renovated consultant suite on the ground of the old Adam Centre which he moved to from the old house and has remained there until today.

Mr Cheng also pointed out that iconic arches were introduced to the top of the TMC building’s façades to “maintain the spirit of the old 339 Thomson Road house”. These were moved to the new façades when the TMC building was extended in 2000 to 2002. The “innovative first-of-its kind in Singapore automatic computer controlled mechanical underground carpark” was built to provide additional car parking spaces.









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