Golden Bell and the intended Anglo-Chinese College on Mount Faber

8 05 2019

Much has been told of Golden Bell (mansion). Built in 1910 as Tan Boo Liat’s stately hilltop residence at Pender Road, an air of romance and some mystery perhaps, surrounds the place. It has quite a proud and distinguished past and its guests included Chinese revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who spent a night there in 1911. Lavish parties were said to have been thrown at house in the brief period that Tan Boo Liat occupied it. In the little more than a century that has elapsed, neither the romance nor the mystery seems to have been lost, even with its use since 1985 by the Danish Seamen’s Church. Those curious enough to have stolen a glance at the grand residence on the way down from Mount Faber will also have little doubt of its majesty. 

Golden Bell today.

A chapter in the Golden Bell story that seems to be missed by most, is one that relates to the Methodist Mission, and its plans to establish an institution of higher learning in Singapore. The ambitious idea was long held by Anglo-Chinese School’s founder, Bishop William F. Oldham, when it was set in motion through the arrival of Rev. James Stewart Nagle in 1914. Rev. Nagle, picked as the principal of the 3-decade old ACS so that he could also put plans for the college in place, set to work immediately. A College Council was established. Its members counted prominent figures such as Tan Kah Kee, Lee Choon Guan, and Tan Cheng Lock, all of whom made generous pledges and contributions.

Anglo-Chinese College Council, 1918. Seated left to right: Tan Kah Kee; William Thorpe Cherry Junior; Lee Choon Guan; Chan Kang Swi; and Rev. J.S. Nagle. Standing: 3rd from left – Reverend P.L. Peach (ACS Principal, 1922-1924); 4th from left – Reverend Boughman; and extreme right – Tan Cheng Lock.

By late 1917, a reported 26½ acres (10.7 hectares) of land on a “hilltop location in Telok Blangah” had been secured, including Golden Bell. Contrary to the popularly held view that it remained in Tan Boo Liat’s hands unil his death in 1934, the mansion, which had already been vacated by late 1914, had been put up for sale in 1916.

Extract from a 1922 Thomas Cook Guide to Singapore, published by the Methodist Publishing House, that lists the “red brick mansion known as ‘Golden Bell'” as belonging to thr Methodist Mission and “intended as an educational site”.

It was also in 1917 that the Mission sent a deputation to Governor Sir Arthur Young – to “seek Government sanction” for the college. Young (as did his successor in 1919, Sir Laurence Guillemard) had misgivings about the plan. It was seen as a threat to British prestige as the Mission was very much an America one. A letter, sent by the Colonial Secretary F. S. James some weeks after the 29 August meeting, stated that while the Government did not object to the setting up of the college, it could neither support the project nor sanction the granting of degrees by it.

Inside Golden Bell’s turret – originally a Billiard Room.

Rev. Nagle and the Council pressed ahead in spite of the apparent objections. In 1918, a Propectus of the Anglo-Chinese College was issued. The prospectus laid out the aims of the intended college, which was to provide “equal facilities with all other students for qualifying of any public degrees that may be instituted by the Government …” and prepare students for degree examinations that “might be instituted by the Straits Settelments Government, or for degree examinations of any recognised British University”. This was clearly intended to address the concerns that the Government had.

Golden Bell’s dining room – now a place of worship.

While the Council may have met with some success in its efforts to raise funds, which by 1920 had grown to a tidy sum of $400,000, it wasn’t as successful in changing the minds of those that mattered. The continued reluctance on the part of the Government to lend its support – who in 1918 embarked on its own plans for a publicly run college – and the unscheduled departure of Rev. Nagle in 1922, would lead to the plan’s demise. With that, funds raised for the college were channelled instead towards the mission’s other educational endeavours. This was the case with Tan Kah Kee’s subscription of $30,000 (Straits Settlements Dollars), which was transferred with his approval to the ACS’s physics and chemistry funds.

The Entrance Hall.

The house, and the land that had been acquired for the college, remained in the possesion of the Methodist Mission into the 1930s – despite attempts to have that sold once the plan had fallen through. While the Methodist Mission may have failed, its efforts prompted the Government to move on their own plans up for an insitution of higher learning. The outcome of the Government’s plans was Raffles College, the forerunner of the University of Malaya and what is today the National University of Singapore, which was set up after some delay in 1928.

More on the intended Anglo-Chinese College can be found at this links:


Addendum 8 May 2019

The use of Golden Bell as the “Singapore Private Hospital” – an untold mini-Chapter in the Golden Bell story:

It has come to my attention (via Khoo Ee Hoon) that Golden Bell was also used briefly as the “Singapore Private Hospital”, which opened in August 1924. Newspaper reports mention its opening above “Plantation Bahru” on a site “200 feet up on hilly ground west of Mount Faber”, “overlooking Keppel Golf Course” and with accommodation for 14 patients. It also had an “operating theatre with modern surgical theatre and an X-Ray plant for examination and treatment” and had “fully trained English Sisters in charge of nursing”.

The hospital seems to have closed some time the following year. Advertisements for an auction sale of hospital equipment at the property appear in November 1925. “To Let” advertisements for the property subsequent to this – at least up to 1934, list addresses that are associated with the Methodist Mission.


Golden Bell and Tan Boo Liat

Designed by a “local” architect, Wee Teck Moh – whose signature appears on the plans of many shophouses built at the end of the 1800s, the Edwardian-style mansion was given the “blood and bandages” fairfaced brick and plaster face appearance that seemed popular at the time. Local examples of buildings erected during the period with a similar appearance are the Central Fire Station, the former MPH Building and the rectory of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. The house also exhibits several “local” features such as the Buddhist stupa shaped roof that adorns a turret. The house is thought to have been named after Tan Boo Liat’s grandfather, Tan Kim Ching – the son of Tan Tock Seng (“Kim Ching” translates into “Golden Bell” in Hokkien).

Plans for Golden Bell approved in 1909 (National Archives of Singapore).

Tan Boo Liat, who took over his grandfather’s rice milling business interests in Siam and was a racehorse owner with a reputation for having lived lavishely, hosted parties at Golden Bell. The mansion also saw some illustrious guests, playing host to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, when he made a short visit to Singapore in December 1911.

Plans for Golden Bell approved in 1909 (National Archives of Singapore).

Tan Boo Liat seems to have used the mansion up to about 1913-14, after which he was constantly on the move. Besides being away in Bangkok for long periods in the 1920s, and in Shanghai for two years until his death there in 1934, he also moved quite a fair bit around Singapore. His residential addresses here included 60 Emerald Hill Road, and 8 Simons Road (Angullia Park today). It was at his Simons Road residence and not at Golden Bell as stated in a 2011 Zaobao article, that Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath of Siam, brother of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and heir apparent to the Siamese throne, passed away during a stopover in Singapore on 13 June 1920 at the age of 37.

A group photograph at Golden Bell with Lim Nee Soon and Tan Chor Lam among the faces in the crowd (National Archives of Singapore).

Golden Bell would eventully fall into the hands of the Port of Singapore Authority, who used it until 1985 and from whom Danish Seamen’s Church initially leased it from. The State Property, still used by the church, has since been transferred to the Singapore Land Authority.

A wooden grille with a golden bell motif on it in the mansion,


 

 

 

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Lost Singapore: The hundred steps to a thousand Buddhas

1 11 2017

Of the many places in Singapore we have lost over the years, none might have possessed the magical quality of the Hall of A Thousand Buddhas standing at the top of Mount Washington. From its isolated perch, even if it was merely 80 metres above sea level, it would have seemed that heaven was a lot closer to it than was earth. A sanctuary for prayer, and perhaps for contemplation, the ascent to it would – at least for the devoted – involved a climb of a hundred steps.

A view from afar with the two 19th century Guanyin temples also seen (photo posted by Tan Chee Wee on On A Little Street in Singapore).

In as magical a fashion as the hall might have been, photographs of the temple have quite recently come to the surface – in the same wonderful photograph sets posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij On a Little Street in Singapore. The same set includes those of the Anchor Brewery and its railway siding that made an appearance in my previous post.

The Hall of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

The prayer hall, also referred to as a temple, was erected by the World Buddhist Society in 1966 to commemorate the first anniversary of Singapore’s independence. An accompanying pagoda, standing close to the hall, was actually built before the hall and had been in existence since 1957 when it was built in commemoration of the then Malaya’s Merdeka. Besides the pair, two other temple buildings – built onto the slope below the hall – were also found by the long staircase. Both were dedicated to Kwan In – the goddess of mercy, with the upper temple intended for male worshippers having been of a 1871 vintage and the lower temple – for women – thought to have been built in 1884. The complex of structures adorned the summit of Mount Washington, also known as Telok Blangah Hill or Thousand Buddha Hill until the late 1980s. That was when the land on which it stood was acquired to allow an extension to Mount Faber Park, across Henderson Road (a 1972 addition), to be built; despite the appeals that were made against it. The World Buddhist Society’s headquarters, housed in the Alkaff Mansion downslope since 1970, was also acquired during the same exercise.

The Hall of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

The Pagoda of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

A close-up of the Pagoda of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

A postcard of the hall and the pagoda.

 





Mount Washington, an old world restored

17 02 2015

It will probably come as no surprise the elevated and lush green surroundings provided by the south facing slopes of Singapore’s southern ridges, with the magnificent views of the coastline it offers, plays host to several palatial residences of an old and forgotten Singapore. One that has seen some of its lost glory recently restored, is a majestic two-storey house perched on Telok Blangah Hill, Alkaff Mansion. Once a weekend escape belonging to the very prominent Alkaff family, the mansion stands today as reminder of a world we long have left behind.

The Alkaff Mansion, restored to its former glory.

The Alkaff Mansion, restored to its former glory.

The mansion, referred to as “merely one of the Alkaff family’s weekend bungalows” and situated “at the end of a long road winding from Pasir Panjang Road through the country”, is described in an article in the 16 September 1934 edition of The Straits Times:

It commands a unique view of the coast, the city and indeed, almost the entire island … Viewed from the bottom of a steep drive leading through the well-kept grounds to the foot of a long flight of stone steps, Mount Washington looks large. It has a broad façade and at each end are two turrets. On the ground floor, a verandah leads to a long narrow dining room. Behind the dining room are the servants’ quarters. On the second floor is another verandah, another long room and behind it one large and two small bedrooms … 

It is not very liberally furnished but the verandah on the first floor is a most refreshing retreat, armchairs and settees of teak having blue tapestry fittings. There are many gilt-framed photographs on easels in the house, also many heavy gilt and Venetian mirrors …

With its semi-circular white stone balustrade at the top of the bank on which it is built, its stately firs and its view, it is a most tempting place to live.

Alkaff house seen in its heyday in the 1920s (National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

Standing on the terrace where the house stands today, it would not be difficult to imagine how grand appearance it might have appeared at the time of the article, when it was known as Mount Washington – the name the hill also seemed at some point in time to have been referred to. The article also makes mention of a garden party the Alkaffs hosted in June of that year. The party, which had over 400 guests on Mount Washington’s grounds, was held to celebrate the appointment as a Justice of the Peace, of the Alkaffs’ General Manager, Haji Shaikh Yahya bin Ahmad Afifi.

The staircase leading up to the terrace.

The staircase leading up to the terrace.

While there have several suggestions that property had so been named due to the close relations the Alkaffs had with the American community, it does seem that its had been called Mount Washington even before Syed Abdulrahman Alkaff purchased the property for $32,000 in 1916 (see “Property Sale“, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 21 June 1916, Page 12). Advertisements placed in the local press show that a mortgagee had made several attempts since the end of 1913 to dispose of Mount Washington, several years before it was purchased by Syed Abdulrahman Alkaff.

A newspaper advertisement for the sale of Mount Washington in 1916.

A newspaper advertisement for the sale of Mount Washington in 1916.

Whether it was from the property, the grounds of which was “planted with rubber trees and also coconut trees”, that the name of hill would be derived from, is also a source of debate. Previously known as Bukit Jagoh, there are several references made to the hill as Mount Washington in newspaper reports that go back to 1908.

A view of the building's side.

A view of the building’s side.

The mansion, as is laid out today, is thought to originate to 1926 and since its heydays in the 1920s and 1930s has experienced a mixed bag of fortunes, having been abandoned after the war. It was to see use again in 1970  when it served as the headquarters of the World Buddhist Society. In 1984, the society had to vacate the premises when it was acquired for an extension to Mount Faber Park and it was only at the end of the 1980s that some of its former majesty was to be restored, when it was converted into a restaurant.

The former weekend residence of the Alkaffs is now a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

The former weekend residence of the Alkaffs is now a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

Unfortunately, the restaurant closed in 2003 and it was left vacant until an exercise in 2010 by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) resulted in a lease being taken up by the LHN Group. The group has since restored the now conserved mansion (it was gazetted for conservation by the URA in 2005) beautifully and since the end of 2011, has operated a fine dining Italian restaurant on the premises – serving to reminds us of days of glory that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The former Alkaff house in the 1980s after the World Buddhist Society vacated it (National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

The former Alkaff House used as the headquarters  of the World Buddhist Society.

The former Alkaff House was used as the headquarters of the World Buddhist Society (Radin Mas Heritage Guide).





The King that lost its glory

23 04 2013

Seen from the top of Mount Faber is what once was a glorious King. The former King’s Dock, the pride and glory of the Singapore Harbour Board and the “largest dock east of the Suez” when it was completed a century ago, now lies abandoned, somewhat forgotten and never to be drained again; a cruise ship, the Superstar Virgo, making an assisted turn in front of it, seems to be facing it and mocking it.

IMG_1852

The dock, named King’s Dock (it had previously been referred to as “Admiralty Dock”), at its opening at 4.30 pm on 26 August 1913, by Sir Arthur Young the then Governor of Singapore, was undoubtedly a giant in its time. At its opening, there had only been one graving dock in the world that was larger – the Gladstone Dock in Liverpool. Over the four and the half years that it took to construct the dock, some 92,500 cubic metres of concrete weighing some 203,000 tonnes had been used. Some 21,300 tonnes of cement had also been used – it was said that if all the barrels of cement were laid out in a line, it would have stretched some 51 miles. In the Far East, the closest dock then in size to King’s Dock which measured 272 metres long by 30.5 metres wide and had a maximum flooded depth at its sill of 25.6 metres, was  the Admiralty Dock in Hong Kong. That measured 240 metres by 27 metres and was slightly deeper with 25.8 metres of water at its sill. The dock was indeed an amazing feat of engineering – at its completion, its 101.4 million litres of water could be discharged in just two hours by two huge steam engine driven pumps at a rate of 85,000 litres a minute.

IMG_1854

The dock came under the PSA when it was formed in 1963, following which shiprepair activities at Keppel Harbour came under the control of the then newly formed  Keppel Shipyard in 1968. The yard operated the dock up until 1996 when it moved to Tuas. The areas around the former shipyard have since undergone redevelopment as a luxury waterfront residential community and marina (see also: A sun rise on another strange horizon), and the plot around the former King’s Dock will be one of the last to be redeveloped as Corals at Keppel Bay, a 367 unit waterfront condominium project which will be developed by Keppel Land and designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. The project is expected to be launched in May 2013.

King's Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.

King’s Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.