One hundred steps to a new heaven?

28 10 2014

It has been a while since I last ventured to the once magical world of Mount Sophia. Perched one hundred feet above the city, scaling its heights was best done on foot via a flight of one hundred steps (and a little more these days), taking you into a world that seemed to me to be the closest thing that there might have been to heaven on earth.

The new world reflecting on a past being erased..

The new world reflecting on a past being erased.

What remains of the former MGS.

All that remains of an old school.

Heaven, as it might have been when I made the first of my wanderings through the area in the 1970s, was much changed place by the time I was reacquainted with the hill in more recent times. Much of its magic faded when Eu Villa, a mansion that was the stuff of which fairy tales are made, was demolished at the start of the 1980s. Scarred today by the barbs that have replaced its once wondrous architectural landscape, much of the charm of its days of glory, has never been seen again.

Eu Villa - the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source:

Eu Villa – the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source:

The triumph of the weapons of past destruction.

The triumph of the weapons of past destruction.

A more recent loss was that of the large cluster of buildings that has collectively been referred to as “Old School”, leaving but a few reminders of a yesterday that has largely been forgotten. The complex of buildings was where over six decades of the memories of old girls of Methodist Girls School (MGS), until 1992, had been made. All that remains today is a lone building, abandoned by its companions, but soon to forge new friendships.

Last one standing - Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS.

Last one standing – Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS.

And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished.

And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished.

The lone structure, now sitting forlornly surrounded by a scene of devastation, the Olson building, dates back to 1928 – having been built to facilitate the school’s move up the hill from nearby Short Street that had been attributed to the then principal Mary Olson, after whom the building was named. Destined now to be a clubhouse within the Sophia Hills residential development that will colonise a good part of Mount Sophia, it is one of four reminders of an enchanted past that have been conserved on the hill.

Olson building will become a clubhouse as part of the Sophia Hills development.

The sprawling condominium development, spread not only over the grounds of the former MGS, but will also include the former premises of Nan Hwa Girls’ School at the junction of Adis Road and Sophia Road, and the area next to Old School that was used by Trinity Theological College (TTC), will also include two of the remanining three conserved structures. One is the pre-war building that housed Nan Hwa, which will be put to use as a kindergarten cum childcare centre. The other is the former TTC chapel, which is intended for use as a fine-dining restaurant.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The former Nan Hwa Girls’ School.

The former Nan Hwa will be leased out as a kindergarten cum childcare centre.

The former chapel of TTC - being turned into a fine-dining restaurant.

The former chapel of TTC – being turned into a fine-dining restaurant.

The chapel, which has stood out on the hill since the 1960s, is recognisable from its very distinctive roof structure, which takes the form of the Chinese character representing people or人 (ren), when viewed from the front. A fourth conserved structure on the hill that is not part of the development, is the former Tower House, which now houses House on the Hill, a childcare centre.

An artist’s impression of what the fine-dining restaurant will look like.

House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development.

House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development.

With the chill brought by the winds of change sweeping through a once familiar part of Singapore, comes much pain. We have to be numb as there is little room to be sentimental in a Singapore where looking to the future makes us forget the past. There are the small reminders of yesterday we sometimes hold on to. These, however, often lose their meaning in being made into a part of tomorrow.

The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created.

The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created.

There is the promise of a new magic. But to feel its enchantment, we have to fall out of love with the Singapore we have grown to love. It is only then that we can fall in love again, with a Singapore where love for anything else but all that now glisters, is hard to find.

The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site.

The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site.

Seeing the light in a world for which the lights will soon go off

25 06 2013

I recently stepped into an old world soon to be discarded in an obscure corner of Mount Emily, a corner which has until now, resisted the changes which have taken away much of the area’s old world charm. The world I stepped into at 13 Wilkie Terrace, a semi-detached two storey house perched atop a terrace above which a house I suspect was built by the Sultan of Siak (the former Osborne House) proudly stands at the top of Mount Emily, will soon make way for a new residential development. Having been the home of the Chia family since 1935, the family decided to bid farewell to it by hosting a community arts exhibition, Displacements (which closed on Sunday), which has not only allowed the artists involved to express the subject of being displaced – a theme relevant not just to the house but to Singapore as a whole, but has also given the curious (I should really say kay-poh – local speak for a “busybody”) like me to have a peek inside a house which has always seemed mysterious to me.

Windows into a once mysterious world that was 13 Wilkie Terrace.

Open windows leading into a once mysterious world that was 13 Wilkie Terrace.

A passageway into a world filled with memories.

A passageway into a world filled with memories.

Climbing the stairs to terrace, brings the house into full view. I was immediately drawn to the many windows the house has been generously provided with, typical of houses built in its era. It is through the many windows, which I always see in old places as portals into the past, where we do find lingering memories of the house and the reminders of a simpler time we have long forgotten.

The stairway to the terrace on which the house is perched.

The stairway to the terrace on which the house is perched.

Through the main door, a hall where too much seemed to be going on, came into view. In one corner, what seemed to be a flea market contributed much to the colour and clutter, clutter that was also contributed by the group crouched over a long table at the far end where a workshop was being held. Right by the door, a few cages filled with cat, apparently on sale, added to the confusion in the seemingly small pace. The confusion perhaps a reminder of the many extended family gatherings we are told had once brought much life to what did eventually became a silent and empty space.

Displacement through a window.

Displacement through a window.

The confusion that was the hall.

The confusion that was the hall.

A workshop being held.

A workshop being held.

A cat in a cage.

A cat in a cage.

It is beyond the hall where I found most interesting – the high ceiling spaces of the interior beyond which, coloured by the changing patterns of shadow and soft light streaming through the windows, both on the lower and upper levels were a joy to behold. In and around the rooms, there also were the many memories in the objects present, of times which have passed. An old piano for which the music has died, sits on an open area of the upper level. Laid bare, the signs of age and neglect for which it has been abandoned are very evident, a reflection of the once grand houses of the area, for which time did very quickly pass.

The passageway past the main hall.

The passageway past the main hall.

A room on the lower level.

A room on the lower level.

Another room on the lower level.

Another room on the lower level.

An installation which does reflect the displacement of spaces in Singapore where many place names have been displaced moving with where development takes them.

An installation which does reflect the displacement of spaces in Singapore where many place names have been displaced moving with where development takes them.

A hallway.

A hallway.

The stairway to the upper level.

The stairway to the upper level.

The view down the stairway.

The view down the stairway.

Bakelite switches and the controls of a ceiling fan.

Bakelite switches and the controls of a ceiling fan.

A old piano laid bare.

A old piano laid bare.

A Butoh dance performance by Syv Bruzeau seen during my visit to the house.

A Butoh dance performance by Syv Bruzeau seen during my visit to the house.

An installation.

An installation.

A Victorian era rotary knife cleaner.

A Victorian era rotary knife cleaner.

It is not just this house for which time will soon pass, the signs can already be seen of the transformation which will completely change the face of the terrace – on a plot where an empty terrace once separated No 13 from a neighbouring house at No. 7 (since demolished), sales office and a show flat for the new residential development taking place there have come up and it will not be long before another piece, one of few that is surviving, of an old world I once enjoyed wandering around, will be lost.

7 Wilkie Terrace (since demolished) seen in Nov 2012.

7 Wilkie Terrace (since demolished) seen in Nov 2012.

Signs of the change that will soon come to Wilkie Terrace.

Signs of the change that will soon come to Wilkie Terrace.

More photographs of 13 Wilkie Terrace











A last reminder of an old-fashioned corner of Singapore

27 11 2012

With the recent demolition of the house that had until 1991 served as the residence of the late Major Derrick Coupland, there stands one last remnant of a forgotten world that had once existed on Mount Emily in the form of the white villa at the end of Upper Wilkie Road that has come to be known as Emily Hill and is probably known more as the former Mount Emily Girls’ Home to many of my generation. Once described as a quiet, pleasant and old-fashioned corner of Singapore of Victorian villas and charming terrace rows, the face of Mount Emily, a spur that extends out from neighbouring Mount Sophia, has seen significant change since its glory days when it would have commanded a magnificent view of the developing city that lay some 100 feet below it. The villa itself bears testimony to the change, having been built as a grand residence which had not just a “beautiful view over the town and the harbour”, but also came with “2 tennis courts and stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages”, it has been put to a variety of use over its time.

A Victorian villa with a rather chequered past, the former Osborne House and what is today Emily Hill, stands as a reminder of Mount Emily’s glorious past.

I have not quite managed to establish when the villa was built. Referred to as Osborne House up to the point when the Japanese Consul-General’s offices shifted into it from Union House in April 1939, references to the villa before the turn of the twentieth century do exist – the earliest being an announcement of the birth of the daughter of Mr Heinrich Bock, Managing Director of the trading firm Katz Brothers in December 1891. This puts its completion at a date that precedes that of the former Tower House and makes it the oldest structure on both Mount Sophia and Mount Emily.

A view through the main entrance. The villa was probably built at the end of the 1880s or early 1890s, making it the oldest structure on Mount Sophia and Mount Emily – the earliest reference to it is a birth announcement in 1891.

That Osborne House had served as the residence of Mr Bock, and his at least two of successors at Katz Brothers’, Mr Frederick Lederer and Mr Arthur Loeb, does suggest that the villa had been in the possession of Katz Brothers at the time. Further evidence of this is seen in an advertisement in The Straits Times on 28 February 1910 in which the house, described as having “4 large bedrooms with dressing rooms attached, dining room, saloon; 2 tennis courts, stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages” was put up to be let with applications to be made to Mr Loeb, c/o Katz Brothers.

The wooden staircase and the landing. The villa served as the residence of the Managing Directors of the trading firm Katz Brothers in its early days.

One interesting reference to the villa is one that involves the sale of it in 1935 to a Mr Jukichi Ikeda, a Singapore based Japanese dentist who had a practice opposite the Central Fire Station in Hill Street. Mr Ikeda is reported to have paid what must have been a tidy sum then of $22,000 to buy the property from a certain Mr Shariff Kassim bin Hashim. Mr Kassim was probably better known in those days as the reigning Sultan of Siak Sri Indrapura, or the Sultan of Siak in short, Siak being a sultanate which was then under the protection of the Dutch in Riau Province in Sumatra. It is known that the Mr Kassim’s father, the previous Sultan of Siak, Syed Hashim bin Kassim, who resided at Jalan Rajah in Singapore, had substantial holdings in property in Singapore and had been in debt to Katz Brothers and also to Mr Loeb and it could very well have been Syed Hashim would had the rather stately Osborne House constructed at the end of the nineteenth century.

Another view of the villa’s front. There is a suggestion that the house could have been built by the Sultan of Siak, Sultan Syed Hashim bin Kassim. What is known is that the villa was sold by the Syed Hashim’s successor, Shariff Kassim to a Singapore based Japanese dentist Jukichi Ikeda in 1935 for $22,000.

The view west from the villa at the rest of Mount Emily. The villa is the last of the Victorian era houses that used to occupy the spur from Mount Sophia that is Mount Emily.

It is from the point of Mr Ikeda’s purchase of the property in 1935 that the villa’s history becomes a little less murky. What is known is that Mr Ikeda had additions and alterations done to Osborne House from the Cartographic and Architectural Records database of the National Archives of Singapore. It was under Mr Ikeda’s ownership when the Japanese Consul-General’s offices moved to the villa on 27 April 1939, serving three Consul-Generals, the first being Issaku Okamoto who was replaced by Kaoru Toyoda in September 1939 who in turn was replaced in November 1940 by the last Japanese Consul-General to serve in Singapore before the Japanese Occupation, Ken Tsurumi. Mr Tsurumi was recalled to Japan in November 1941 – his intended replacement, Suemasa Okamoto, never arrived as events that led to an unfortunate episode in Singapore’s history unfolded. It was only in 1953 that the next Japanese diplomatic representative, Ken Ninomiya was to be appointed.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

A spacious space on the upper floor. The house was thought to have had 4 large bedrooms with dressing rooms attached, dining room, saloon; 2 tennis courts, and stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages.

The siting of the Japanese Consulate-General at Osborne House in 1939, came at a time when a community of Japanese had established themselves in the Middle Road area, with Middle Road being referred to as “Chuo Dori” or “Central Street”. A remnant of this Japanese presence on Middle Road are the buildings belonging to the former Middle Road Hospital which began as a Japanese built hospital Doh-Jin in 1940. Osborne House does in fact rise at the end of Chuo Dori, lying along its axis. The house passed into the hands of the Department of Social Welfare following the end of the war and served as an orphanage, a home for boys, a halfway house for the rehabilitation of young prostitutes up to the age of 21, a girls’ home and finally the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s. It then fell into disuse and only became Emily Hill, an arts centre, in 2007.

Light through coloured glass panels on the landing of the staircase.

Once described as a quiet, pleasant and old-fashioned corner of Singapore, Mount Emily is still offers a pleasant escape escape from the city 100 feet below it.

In trying to dig up the villa’s rather chequered past, I stumbled upon another interesting fact that had not been known to me. Down the slope east of the villa’s rear is a cul-de-sac at the end of Wilkie Terrace to the right of which the Christian Assembly Hall now stands. The Christian Assembly Hall sits on what before the war was a Shinto Shrine. Mention is made of this in a report relating to an Official Secrets Case in which charges were brought against several members of the Japanese community in 1940 where the shrine is referred to as a “Japanese Temple”. The report makes for interesting reading and further reports on the case do suggest that there was a path that led from the shrine uphill to what had at the time been the Japanese Consulate. All traces of the shrine and the path to the consulate have of course been erased over time. What does remain of that past which many may wish not to remember is a reminder that also is one of a time we should not want to forget.

Wilkie Terrace down the eastern slope from the villa, does hold some interesting finds.

The land on which the Christian Assembly Hall stands at the end of Wilkie Terrace was once the site of a Shinto Shrine.

An article in Japanese on Emily Hill and the former Osborne House: 「日本人街」の歴史も知る丘の上の邸宅シンガポール、 Emily Hill(エミリー・ヒル.

Being chased by vampires on top of a hill

22 05 2012

My last encounter with a “vampire” was one that occurred in my childhood. It was in the dark of night that a vampire, suspiciously resembling the ones that Christopher Lee depicted in the many Dracula movies that we got a diet of on the television at the end of the 1960s, appeared to me. The vampire wearing a toothless scowl, had in his deep voice, asked for me to return his fangs which he insisted I had stolen, back. Then, mock vampire fangs which fit over the teeth like a mouth guard were the rage – they cost then a very affordable 5 cents and along with many of the boys of my neighbourhood, I had one of them. As funny as the encounter, which came in a bad dream whilst I was fast asleep, does now sound, I terrified and promptly disposed of the mock vampire fangs as soon as I was able to and I never in my childhood allowed myself to sit through a vampire (or pontianak) movie ever again!

An encounter with a vampire at Old School.

The next encounter that I was to have some forty years after that first – one that I volunteered for, safe in the knowledge that there was no way that the vampires I was to encounter were going to ask for their teeth back. This encounter was a staged one – literally, being a rehearsal for THEY ONLY COME AT NIGHT: PANDEMIC, a site-specific and interactive multimedia installation at Old School for the Singapore Arts Festival 2012. Pandemic is set in what is described as an “apocalyptic wasteland” that is Singapore, six months after a final battle which saw the few remaining vampire hunters lose the battle against the spreading vampire pandemic. There are a few survivors who somehow survived, of which the audience is part of, following a character – former industrialist Maggie Tan who with some 150 survivors, make their way on an adventure to the headquarters of the quasi-religious group – Quiddists, which is led by the charismatic Chester Rickwood, at the Old School. There the audience will be immersed in a struggle as much against the vampires as with the various personalities involved – being forced to choose who they wish to follow … knowing that the bloodthirsty creatures of the night will eventually get to them.

Headsets for the audience.

And instructions so that the audience does not stray.

The entrance.

With what seemed like the promise of an experience that perhaps would be more complete than that of amusement park haunted house, I agreed to attend the rehearsal. Equipped with the necessary gear that included a media player and headsets, a map and an emergency light, I followed the crowd through the entrance to the headquarters of the Quiddists, half expecting to be frightened out of my wits. On the walk through there certainly were attempts to create signs of presence of the supernatural – bloodstains and bloodied clothes, circles cast on the ground with chalk and smoke trails with the smell of incense hanging in the air – to protect against the forces of the netherworld. It wasn’t, as I understand, meant to be frightening – just to raise fear levels a little so that the audience would be in a state that allows participation.

The passageway …

Signs of a vampire pandemic?

Scenes of carnage along the way …

Lighting up the darkness.

Participation comes as the audience is introduced to the plot through the main characters who range from a young CEO who had seen the apocalypse coming, Chester Rickwood, to a couple of battle weary vampire hunters. The plot was interesting on its own and certainly provided an excellent platform for participation. This except for being in the thick of what was going on and being made to feel a sense of urgency in being moved from one place to the next, unfortunately did not really take place, and I felt I was watching rather than participating for good part of the dialogue that took place among the characters.

The audience gets to participate in some way…

Maggie Tan (elevated left) and Grace (right).

Chester Rickwood.

Morton, Maggie Tan’s right-hand man.

Quinn? The legendary vampire hunter.

Grace, a disturbed vampire slayer.

Quinn and Maggie Tan.

The audience being made to move with a sense of urgency.

In all, the hour-long performance does serve to entertain although not in the way I envisaged and is worth an evening out, if not for the performance, at least for the workout and the feel of what may well be a haunted part of the old Methodist Girls’ School that will soon make way for the inevitable – not the pandemic of bloodthirsty fanged cousins of Dracula, but one of the glass, steel and concrete tower blocks that have spread around a once magical hill like a virus. THEY ONLY COME AT NIGHT: PANDEMIC will open this evening and is on until Sunday (22 to 27 May 2012) with two performances each evening. More information including on that of ticketing is available at the Singapore Arts Festival website.

The final scene.

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…Saving the world from an intoxicating vampire virus.

You heard about them previously – mysterious attacks in dank underground car parks and bloodsucking creatures from ancient Europe seemingly taking root in today’s modern times – and you ignored them.

Now, the vampire virus has become an unstoppable pandemic.

The final battle was fought in Singapore, where the world’s remaining vampire hunters fought valiantly to the end for mankind. And lost.

Or perhaps not. Six months after the dust has settled, survivors surfaced. Some lived through sheer grit. Some just got lucky.

Some are not even sure how they made it through but are grateful anyway. You are one of the blessed.

Together with former industrialist Maggie Tan and 149 other survivors, you trudge through an apocalyptic wasteland. The destination: the Old School, the headquarters of the quasireligious group – Quiddists – led by the charismatic Chester Rickwood, who believed in channelling the natural energy of his followers.

Although undefended, the Old School lasted much longer than other strongholds. Can it possibly hold the key to questions that need to be answered? How did Rickwood’s Quiddists last so long?

How did the vampires finally overcome Rickwood’s commune? And what on earth is to be done now?

You and the team have some time to unearth the answers. But not too much. The creatures will discover your existence, and when they do, they will come for you.


…if you are excited about new experiences, and fancy the idea of an interactive and multimedia installation.

…if you enjoy unique site-specific projects with specially crafted storylines.

…if you love the concept of vampires.

Singapore. Singapore. Where it must end.

About The Singapore Arts Festival

The Singapore Arts Festival began in 1977 as a national showcase celebrating the local arts of Singapore’s diverse communities. Over the last three decades, the Festival organised by the National Arts Council, has played a symbiotic and catalytic role in the development of the artistic and cultural life of Singapore. It has influenced the work of artists and generated a growing public demand for the arts, spawning new capital platforms, events and movements that help underpin the lively cultural scene in Singapore.

The Festival saw its turning point in 2010 as it embarked on a new phase of development under the leadership of Low Kee Hong. Key changes and initiatives include turning this international arts platform into a Creation and People’s Festival with a vital year-long participation programme, com.mune to sustain the Festival’s engagement with the public beyond individual shows staged during the Festival period. The commune events and activities are tailored for four groups: new audiences — people who may not have encountered the arts; arts lovers — people who buy tickets to performances; arts makers — artists and teachers who inspire their students through the arts; and arts volunteers — people who have the heart to make a difference.

The Singapore Arts Festival has now become an international showcase of ideas, art and discourse with a distinctive Asian flavour, known for its bold and innovative discussions between vernacular and contemporary art.

Singapore Arts Festival 2012: Our Lost Poems

The 2012 Festival will be held from 18 May – 2 June 2012. This edition of the Festival completes the trilogy of themes set out two editions ago – Between You and Me (2010), I Want to Remember (2011), Our Lost Poems (2012). Over these 16 days, the city comes alive with an infusion of performances at the Festival’s hub – the Festival Village @ Esplanade Park and other key venues. There is something for everyone this year, from ages 1 to 100.

Windows to Heaven

30 11 2011

High on a hill in Singapore’s city centre, sits a quaint and proud old house. Having seen many of its companions in over the 12 decades of its existence come and go, it is one of the survivors of a moment in time when one might have seen the setting it was in as Heaven in Singapore. The hill is one that would have commanded a spectacular view of the fast growing city around it, making it an ideal choice for the well-off to build homes that were worthy of their status. Much of that has disappeared through the ravages of time and urban development, and although it is still a fairly exclusive residential neighbourhood, it is in towering blocks of private apartments which now obscure that once magnificent view, that its residents now live in.

An early photograph of the House on the Hill on display.

An elevation off a copy of the original plans for the former Tower House. The quaint old building was designed by Crane Brothers' Architects and built in 1892.

The house, with an exterior of concrete decorated by its wood and wrought iron work fittings, speaks not just of a style from a forgotten past, but also of one that was built very much with the local climate in mind. It is certainly one that is hard to miss, standing tall across the entrance to the Old School complex on Mount Sophia that once housed Methodist Girls’ School and apart from the developments that makes it seem like it is out of place. It is probably ironic that it owes its survival over the years to the buildings across the road whose own survival is now in question, having been owned by the Methodist Mission that ran the school for a good part of its later life during which time it was referred to as ‘Tower House’.

The House on the Hill.

A window to the Old School complex with which the history of the old house is intertwined.

A patio-like space at the entrance to the house.

Beautiful ironwork grilles.

A view through the fence to the patio.

One of the features of the house’s architecture is the generous amount of light and ventilation it is afforded through the generous amount of shuttered windows and balcony doors, and it is this that immediately catches the eye – not so much the tower it was named after that rises above the second floor. It was the doors and windows that were more often than not closed that first drew my attention to the house, imagining them to hide something sinister from a past that was not known to me which I often wondered about. And it was only through a recent exchange of correspondance with Mr Oliver Bettin, who has taken over the lease of the house and through his kind invitation to a party he held over the weekend that I was able to discover that it had a past less sinister that I might have liked to have imagined. Mr Bettin has not just done the place up beautifully, in preparation for its use as a pre-school ‘The House on the Hill’ which will commence operations next year, but also sought to find out more of its past.

I've often wondered what secrets the numerous shuttered windows and doors had hidden.

Windows and doors that would have once opened up to a view of what might have been called a piece of Heaven. A doorway through which the magical sight of Eu Villa would have once greeted the eye.

Inspired by what’s he has read of the glorious past of Mount Sophia, Mr Bettin has sought to also find out more on the house he now leases, making headway with some of what he’s found in the Methodist Church’s archives. One of the things Mr Bettin has managed to establish, is that the house, designed by Crane Brothers’ was constructed in 1892, on the basis of a copy of the original building plans he obtained from the archives. The Methodist Church he has also found out, bought the house in 1932, using it first as an extension of the growing school as well as to house missionaries before finally turning it to the Women’s Society of Christian Service for its use until it was acquired by the Singapore Government in 1998.

Mr Bettin has managed to find out quite a bit on the history of the house.

I was certainly thankful to have an opportunity to see the insides of the beautiful house. It was indeed it was a wonderful place to spend a Sunday evening exploring. While there is probably very little left to connect it with its original state, it is not difficult to imagine how it might have been with large well ventilated rooms that open out to the garden or to a verandah or the expansive balcony through what would once have been shuttered windows and doors some of which might possibly have been the original ones when the house was built. It was in the shuttered doors and windows that I took most delight in, the carved venitilation openings at the top being very much a joy to behold. It is also in looking out of the windows and doors as well as from the balcony and the tower – probably opened originally but is now enclosed by more recently added glass louvered windows, that it is not difficult to imagine the view that the house had in its early days commanded of the growing city a hundred feet below and of the harbour in the distance. That view was certainly the motivation not just for the building of the house where it is, but also for how it had been designed with its balcony and tower. The view would certainly have been a magnificent one, overlooking not just the southern slope of Mount Sophia, Government House to the west, a growing city to the east, and Fort Canning Hill to the south, but also over the eastern slope on which first Adis’ grand villa made its brief appearance, being replaced not long after by Eu Tong Sen’s fairy tale like mansion. That must certainly have been a magical view, one which staring out towards, might have looked like it was a slice of Heaven that one was looking out into.

Possibly the original wooden shuttered windows?

And matching wooden shuttered doors.

The staircase.

Window Grilles by the staircase.

The spacious balcony.

A view from the balcony.

The generous space in the airy rooms make the house ideal for use as a pre-school.

At the top of the tower - glass louvered windows that would have been added later.

The view from the Tower.

A view through a ventilation opening.

Glass louvered windows where that might have been wooden shuttered ones.

More windows - again probably not the original ones.

A new window to the new world built over what had been Eu Villa.

A view of where Heaven might now be through glass louvered windows.

A verandah.

Doors to the balcony.

A view through to the balcony.

The crumbling bungalow at Upper Wilkie Road

4 03 2011

There was a time when Mount Sophia had been a magical world, a place where men who made it big in the developing colony of Singapore had sought to build several wondrous mansions. This was a world that I have described in previous posts: “One hundred steps to Heaven”, and “The magical hill with a fairy-tale like mansion that was Mount Sophia” and one that we, in the last four decades or so, have seen crumbling before our eyes. There is little of what is left to remind us of the wonderful villas, some that once would have commanded a magnificent and unobstructed view of the world around, the Abdullad Shooker Home for one, the mansion that was used as the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple another. There is one as well that stands up the hill at No. 8 Upper Wilkie Road, just a stone’s throw from another which had been a Japanese consulate and a girls’ home. That, unfortunately has been left vacant since 1991, when its occupant, Major Derrick Coupland, passed away, and the evidence of some two decades of abandonment has been pretty evident for a while.

The abandoned bungalow at Upper Wilkie Road which was the residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

The bungalow at No. 8 would probably be beyond restoration, but it would really be nice to have seen some attempt to preserve the building or at least something put up to remember Major Coupland, who died of bone cancer at the age of 70, for his contribution to Singapore and his role as the President of the Ex-Services Association which he held for some two decades right up to his death. Major Coupland was well known for his role during the war, being amongst the group of British officers who organised Force 136. He later served on the personal security staff of Lord Mountbatten. It is also notable for the part he played after the war, in which he was reported as being the force behind the Ex-Services Association’s charity work with war widows and those affected by the war. As a naturalised Singaporean, Major Coupland also contributed in our early days of independence, serving as a training officer for the first batches of National Servicemen in the late 1960s. He also served in the Singapore Volunteer Corps and was a founding member of the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, as well as serving as a director for the Singapore Council of Social Services for 7 years. He was conferred with an OBE in 1976 and is buried at the British Military Cemetery at Kranji.

Views around the crumbling former home of the late Major Derrick Coupland:


  • The former Mount Emily Girls’ Home – the oldest surviving building on Mount Emily and Mount Sophia which might have been built by the Sultan of Siak and was once used as a Japanese Consulate
  • And, what is probably the oldest on Mount Sophia, the former Tower House

One hundred steps to Heaven

1 03 2011

If heaven was to be a place in Singapore, there would probably not be a better candidate for a suitable location than the Mount Sophia that previously existed. These days of course, Mount Sophia is associated more with sought after high-rise residential units in a prime location close to the heart of the city. However, back in the early part of the 20th century, it must certainly have been a truly magical and heavenly place, dominated by the magnificent Eu Villa that commanded a view of much of the surrounding areas of the fast growing city that lay on the areas some 100 feet below, and the many other grand bungalows and mansions, paticularly around Adis and Wilkie Roads. By the time I was going to school in Bras Basah Road and wandering curiously around the area, many of the heavenly places were still around, albeit in dilapidated condition – and mostly I guess crumbling to a point that it would have taken a monumental effort to preserve them. Still one could easily imagine how grand the area, which seemed a world apart from the rough and tumble of the mixed residential and commercial districts that lay below, would have been.

An aerial view of Mount Sophia and the surrounding area in the 1960s. It is easy to see why the well heeled would choose to build their magnificent mansions on the geographical feature which commanded an excellent view of the area around it. The Cathay Building can be seen on the south of Mount Sophia and the castle like Eu Villa to the top and right of it. The Istana and its grounds, which together with Mount Sophia and adjoining Mount Emily were part of Charles Robert Prinsep's huge nutmeg plantation can be seen on the left of the photo (Photo Source:

I was fortunate to be able to have seen all that I guess and place myself in that magical world, then accessible either via Sophia Road or by the so-called one hundred steps up from Handy Road. Given the choice of access options, the adventurous schoolboy that I was would certainly have chosen the latter route – after all, it was a shortcut we occasionally took to get to Plaza Singapura, then not accessible through Handy Road, which would involve climbing into the upper level of the car park at Plaza Singapore right next to western slopes of Mount Sophia, where Yaohan and a popular hangout for teens then, the Yamaha Music School run Do Re Mi cafe, beckoned. These days, much of that magic that I felt back then, is absent, with the manisons, most of which went in the 1980s and 1990s, with Eu Villa itself being demolished in 1981 after being sold by the Eu family for a princely sum of S$ 8.19M in 1973 to a property development company, having given way to a mess of monstrous apartment blocks, and it’s difficult to return to that magical world that I once wandered around.

The fairy-tale like Eu Villa, once the home of Eu Tong Sen. It was built in 1915 at a cost of S$1M on the site of Adis Lodge which Eu had purchase from Nissim Nissim Adis, the owner of the Grand Hotel de L'Europe in 1912.

I had an opportunity to do just that, return to the magical world that is, taking a walk with the National Library Board around the area, and trying to transport not just myself, but also a group of 30 participants to that world that I once knew. It was good to have on board two ladies who attended two of the schools in the area, who were able to share their experiences as well of going to Nan Hwa Girls’ School and Methodist Girls School (MGS). Both described ascending the one hundered steps to get to their schools, describing how it rose precariously up the steep slope from Handy Road with no railings to speak of and the steps being uneven in height – far different from the reconstructed steps in the vicinity of the original we see today. The ex MGS girl described how her schoolmates and her would race down the steps … something I am sure many would have not been able to resist in impetuosity of youth. We also confirmed that there were actually 100 steps – something I never thought of trying to establish in the many occasions on which I ascended the steps.

The one hundred steps offered a short cut for the adventurous to Plaza Singapura (seen here in its very early days - source:

The walk started with a short introduction at the library, after which we were transported to the magical hill not by the one hundred steps, but by air-conditioned coach to the top of Mount Emily, I guess in keeping with the new age. What we saw were some remnants of there area that I loved, including the former Mount Emily Girls’ home which for a while was used as the Japanese Consulate prior to the war, becoming a halfway house for underage street prostitutes before becoming the girls’ home in 1969 and later the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s. There was also the location of the first public swimming pool in Singapore, built on the site of the waterworks on Mount Emily, a pool that I visited in my younger days, being one of my father’s favourite pools, across from which we could see the hoardings surrounding the former bungalow of the late Major Derrick Coupland who passed away in 1991. Major Coupland was well known as a World War II veteran and the President of the Ex-Services Association heading it for some 20 years prior to his death from bone cancer in June 1991. I understand from a reader that the bungalow has been left empty since and the deterioration from 20 years of abandonment was evident before the hoardings came up some time at the end of last year – I suppose that the building is being prepared for demolition right at this moment.

The hoardings havve come up around the crumbling former residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

From the original coat of arms, used during the years of self-govenrment that can be seen on the structure at the entrance to Mount Emily Park, we made our way down Wilkie Road, past the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple. The current temple with its distinctive white dome, is a later one, built in 1983, next to an old house which as a plaque indicates, was purchased in 1932 (I was told from a Jewish gentleman), and originally housed the temple. Most of the magnificent mansions, including one owned by M J Nassim, that lined Wilkie Road have been replaced by apartment blocks … one that remains is the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home at 81 Wilkie Road which is described in a previous post.

Wilkie Road used to be lined with magnificent mansions including one that still stands - the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, left by the late Abdullah Shooker, a Baghdadi Jew who died during internment by the Japanese in 1942, to the Jewish community.

Further down Wilkie Road, the participants were introduced to the Sophia Flats, once the home of the illustrious F J Benjamin, across from which we could once get a glimpse of the roofs of the magical Eu Villa over a retaining wall which marked the edge of the table on which the villa and its huge grounds once stood. Sadly the wall has come down, perhaps the last reminder of the villa that was left, along with the table which is being levelled for what is probably a commercial/residential project.

And the wall came tumbling down ... the last reminder of Eu Villa comes down - a retaining wall that marked the edge of the table of land on which the villa once stood (as seen in January 2011).

The last bit of the wall next to Peace Centre on Sophia Road.

At the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads, the excited chatter of a former student of Nan Hwa Girl’s School was heard, as she reminisced about her schooldays. The building which was completed in 1941, before being used by the Japanese during the war and the British forces after before being returned to Nan Hwa in 1947, is now used as a student hostel – and as one participant on the walk pointed out, the flag poles in front of the basketball courts which also served as an assembly area were still very much in evidence. Besides this, we learnt of a popular ice-kacang stall that both the girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised after school which was at the corner opposite Nan Hwa.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' High School at the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads.

A former student at Nan Hwa Girls' School sharing her experiences of going to school outside the former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The corner of Adis Road and Sophia Road at which the ice kacang stall that both girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised, was located.

Before we hit the new one hundred steps, we stopped by the Art Deco styled building which housed San Shan Public School which was built in the 1950s by the Foochow Association, which ran the school up to the 1970s when the running of it was handed to the Ministry of Education. The school after moving from its Mount Sophia premises in the 1980s has stopped functioning. Next was the former Trinity Theological College which was established in 1948. The cluster of buildings that belonged to the college including the church with the distinctive roof shaped to the Chinese character for people, 人 (Ren), were built in the 1960s. The college moved in the 1990s to its current location along Upper Bukit Timah Road – and the roof of the church there is identical to the one on Mount Sophia. Next to the college, the cluster of buildings (now Old School) that house MGS still stands. The former pupil of MGS spoke of how she could see the gardens of Eu Villa from her class window, and how the classes were organised, C being the best class and A for the weakest students, of the three classes that each form had in the 1960s.

A view of the former MGS.

From the hundred steps down, we made our way to the corner of what used to be Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah Road, now dominated by another monstrous piece of architecture which did not agree with most of the participants – one remarked that it “stuck out like a sore thumb”. Where that building which is the School of the Arts (SOTA) stand, there was what had been Dhoby Ghaut, gone as a road that carried the name in an area that once was used by the Indian Dhobis to gain access to the fresh water stream that has since become the Stamford Canal. What survives of that Dhoby Ghaut which hold memories of the row of shops which included the Red Sea Aquarium and an A&W outlet that I frequented as a schoolboy and another row of houses up behind on Kirk Terrace which included a Sikh temple, is only the name of the MRT station in the vicinity.

The row of shops at Dhoby Ghaut next to Cathay Building was where the Red Sea Aquarium as well as the A&W was. Today the SOTA building stands on top of the area where Dhoby Ghaut was (source:

We then walked up Prinsep Street, named after Charles Robert Prinsep, the owner of the nutmeg plantation which once included Mount Emily, Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline and extended to the Istana grounds (100 acres were purchased in 1867 for the Governor’s House which became the Istana). There were suggestions that the three mounts were named after three daughters of Prinsep, but what is more likely was that when Prinsep purchased the land, Mount Sophia (which appears earlier as Bukit Selegi) would have already been named after the second wife of Raffles, modern Singapore’s founder, Sophia Hull, and if anything, Prinsep named the two adjoining hills after two other daughters, having been part of the former estate of Raffles’ brother-in-law and Singapore’s first Master Attendant, Captain Flint.

Kirk Terrace over Dhoby Ghaut (source:

It was then a leisurely stroll back to the library via Middle Road, where we stopped by the site of the former POSB headquarters facing Prinsep Street and the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) facing Bencoolen Street, where Sunshine Plaza stands, but not before introducing the former Tiger Balm Building, the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road hospital. At Sunshine Plaza, we saw a few signcraft shops – remnants of those that featured in the area when demand for vehicle number plates existed due to the presence of the ROV in the vicinity. Then it was past the former Middle Road Church (now Sculpture Square), used as a motor workshop when I went to school in the area in the 1970s, and the former St. Anthony’s Convent, before hitting the site of the former Queen of the Mooncakes (Empress Hotel) – our destination where the Central Library building now stands.

Middle Road once featured sign craft shops serving the demand from the nearby ROV, including Rainbow Signs which I well remember from passing many times on the bus home from school (source:

It was the end of a rather enjoyable walk for me, and I hope the participants had as good a time as I had. Before what was left of the participants dispersed, there was still time to exchange a story, one about the sighting of an Orang Minyak (translated from Malay as “Oily Man” – one that is said to be cursed to an existence as an dark oil coated being that possesses supernatural powers, but more likely as a participant Jeff pointed out, was a man coated in oil to ensure a smooth getaway), reputed as one that terrorises the fairer sex. I had heard about one which was reportedly known to lurk in the compound of St. Joseph’s Church across Victoria Street, through a reader Greg Lim, who lived in Holloway Lane in the 1950s. My mother who boarded at St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s could not confirm this, but did mentioned that there were rumours of one lurking in the stairwell. Jeff, who himself lived on nearby Cashin Street in the 1950s confirmed that there was indeed sightings reported, and he was in one of the crowds that had gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the Orang Minyak. Another participant, the mother of Ms Thiru (who is with the NLB and organised the walk), also confirmed that she was aware of the story. It was certainly an interesting end to the walk, one that took a little longer than anticipated, but one that was thoroughly enjoyable.

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


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