Orchard Road, half a century ago

14 06 2021

Glitzy and glamourous, Singapore’s Orchard Road is sold today as a fashionable destination to find a hotel in, to shop and to have a meal. With much of its two kilometres lined with modern malls, it is no wonder. It however, wasn’t this way when I first got to know the street as a child. This was in the second half of the 1960s, when Orchard Road still wore a rather sleepy aura, lined with shophouses, a multitude of car showrooms, among which two supermarkets were nestled.

 A view down Orchard Road in 1971.
A view down Orchard Road in 1971.

Two of the motor showrooms that would often catch my attention were Champion Motors – a VW dealer, located where Lucky Plaza is today, and Orchard Motors – which sold Vauxhalls and Chevrolets on the site of the older section of Paragon. The latter, stood right next to one of the supermarkets, Fitzpatrick’s, which was the younger of the two supermarkets, having opened in August 1958.

1958 was also the year that the rather famous Orchard Road outlet of C K Tang – housed in a Chinese-styled building that would become quite an Orchard Road icon – opened. The rags to riches tale of C K Tang or Tang Choon Keng, who came as a poor immigrant from China in 1923 is one that has frequently been told. His bold decision, to move from River Valley Road to the more centrally located Orchard Road might be thought of as a stroke of genius. To the superstitious, the site of the new store might have been thought of as being inauspicious, with it facing the former Teochew burial site, Tai Swa Teng, just across the road. Tang’s move, with a view to catching the growing tourist crowd, eventually paid off and was possibly the spark that lit the fire. By 1965, Metro – another household name today – found its way to the street, opening its Metrotex store at Liat Towers, and in 1967, Chinese Emporium opened its outlet at International Building.

By the early 1970s, what could be thought of as the first modern mall – fashioned out of the former Orchard Motors showroom, The Orchard, opened. The mall, housed some upmarket shops such as Charles Jourdan, The Elizabeth Arden Salon, Diethelm Furniture, Jade Palace Restaurant and Thong Sia, a branch of Robina Department Store and was perhaps best known for Tivoli Coffee House. Several large scale mall developments were to follow with Tanglin Shopping Centre at nearby Tanglin Road being completed in 1972 and Plaza Singapura, at which Yaohan became an instant hit, in 1974. The conversion of the former Orchard Motors car showroom may also have spelt the beginning of the end for the motorcar trade on Orchard Road. Orchard Motors’ companion, Champion Motors, soon also gave way to Lucky Plaza, which opened in 1978.





Motoring Days on Orchard Road

26 11 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Orchard Road’s last shophouses

10 11 2019

Built close to a century ago, the last of Orchard Road’s shophouses stand as a reminder of a time before Singapore’s shopping mile was mall-ed. Comprising four delightful structures at numbers 14 to 38, each a gem of eclectic architectural expression, they also serve to remind us of the rubber trade inspired hopes and aspirations of the decade that followed the end of the Great War. The row, which features three notable edifices and one, no 38, which often goes unnoticed, was acquired by the State in the 1980s following a 1978 gazette for acquisition and gazetted for conservation in November 2000.

The conserved row.

The east end of the row is marked by the cry for attention that the former Malayan Motors showroom is. Designed by Swan and Maclaren’s DS Petrovich, it replaced the Morris and Rolls Royce dealer’s earlier showroom and represented a progression in showroom designs. A length of windows on each side of a projection in its façade provided natural illumination to its upper floors where its upper level showroom was served by a ramp to the ground floor. A scalloped semi-circular gable (if one can call it that) at each end of the roof drew attention to it.

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

Completed in 1927, the former showroom can also be thought of as a marker of Orchard Road’s motoring days. Fuelled by the expansion in the rubber market here during the Great War, the demand for the motorcar had risen three-fold between 1913 and 1918, leading to a proliferation in the area of motorcar showrooms, and workshops (several over the canal at what is now Handy Road ) by the 1920s. Vehicle assembly was also introduced and Singapore’s first assembly plant – for Ford – opened in the area with a production capacity of 12 cars a day in 1925. The showroom was built by the Wearnes brothers who also brought in the Fords, which they sold via another dealership, Universal Cars. Besides Morris and Rolls Royce, other brands that the Malayan Motors showroom would have dealt with were Rover and Studebaker.  The showroom made its last sale in August 1980, following which Malayan Motors concentrated its business at its Leng Kee branch. Following its acquisition by the State, the showroom was renovated in 1988 for use by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House. It has been used by MDIS, a private school, since 2002.

The former MidFilm House, then and now.

Another interesting building is the Dutch-gabled former Midfilm House (Middle East Film Building) at no 22 to 24 next to the showroom. This dates back to 1921 and was put up by Middle East Films Ltd, a pioneering distributor of films in Southeast Asia. The building, which is Orchard 22 today, also served as temporary premises for Malayan Motors when its showroom was being rebuilt in 1926-27.

22-24 Orchard Road in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

What is probably now the icing in the cake for the row is the somewhat art deco and possibly modern-classical no 26 to 36 next to the former Midfilm House, which since June 2019, is the resplendent Temasek Shophouse. Built  in 1928, it stands on the site of six older shophouses – three of which had each been acquired by Chee Swee Cheng in 1926, and the other three by E Kong Guan from 1925 to 1926. Both Chee and E had roots in Malacca and were tapioca and rubber planters. Chee was also known to have substantial interests in opium and spirit “farming” in North Borneo and a landowner, who held several properties in Singapore. He is associated with the abandoned villa at 25 Grange Road, Wellington House, often incorrectly referred to as the Chee Guan Chiang mansion – after Chee’s son by a second marriage.

The Temasek Shophouse.

It was Guan Chiang who had the 3-storey 26 to 36 Orchard Road co-developed with E – based on plans drawn up by Westerhout and Oman in 1927. The new building’s interior spaces were split down the middle for each of the two owners, with E’s side being the western half numbered 32 to 36. An office space and store was laid out on each side of the ground floor. The upper floors of each half, each contained a 2-bedroom apartment.

No 26 to 36 in 1984 with the Art Furniture Depot and Sin Sin Furniture occupying the ground floor (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

The office spaces found use as showrooms, both initially occupied by The Art Furniture Depot in 1929. It was this store that the building would have the longest association with. The store gave up one of its showrooms in the early 1930s in the face of the Great Depression. The vacant unit would became the Eddystone Radio showrrom in 1933 and after the war, Sin Sin Furniture’s. Both furniture stores moved out around 1986 when the building was acquired by the State. Following this, substantial modifications were made to the building’s interiors so that it could house Pisces Garments Department Store with escalators, lifts and a mezzanine level were put in. The department store, which opened in 1989, morphed into PMart in 1994.

 

The current transformation has opened up the back of no 26 to 36, giving a full view of it.

The current transformation followed on the award of a tender launched in 2017 to Temasek, on the basis of the quality of concept that it had put forward.  The 18-month refurbishment effort that followed reversed several of the interventions of Pisces and gorgeously and sensitively restored the building, earned a 2019 URA Architectural Heritage Award for restoration. The overhauled interiors now feature a double-volume event space with a green wall featuring native plants. That is – in the context of today – not complete without a social-enterprise café. As an alternative to the street entrance, the garden – which the knocking of a boundary wall at the back has opened up – provides a very nice back door. The back is also where a pair of conserved concrete spiral staircases attached to the building’s rear – perhaps one of the tallest now seen – can be admired together with the equally impressive back façade. Offices, co-working spaces, meeting and function rooms – with native birds as themes, offices, a meeting space on its roof garden and space to accommodate its partners complete the picture.

Shophouses beyond the east end of the row – leading to an expunged street named Dhoby Ghaut – that have since been demolished (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Fresh, innovative and a joy to behold, the Temasek Shophouse brings Temasek Trust and its beneficiaries Temasek Foundation and Stewardship Asia Centre under one roof – with the aim to serve as an incubator of social and philanthropic in initiatives promoting community collaboration and advancing sustainability. It brings, if not for anything else, an injection of purpose to that the conserved row now sorely lacks.

The event space and its green wall.


More photographs of the Temasek Shophouse

A co-working space on the mezzanine.

Another view of the event space and the café.

One of the native bird themed meeting spaces.

Up on the roof.

The rooftop meeting room.

Offices for one or its sustainability partners – which makes furniture out of recycled material.

A pantry within an office space.

A balcony and on of its spiral staircases at the building’s rear.

A balcony overlooking Orchard Road and Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

A close-up of the Corinthian capitals of the classical-esque columns on the building’s front façade.

Another view of the front balcony.

And another of the rear spiral staircase and balcony.

A downward view to the back garden from one of the spiral staircases.






A postcard from the past: Fitzpatrick’s on Orchard Road

21 06 2017

I miss the old Orchard Road. Laid back, when compared to the madness that now consumes the street, little remains of it except for a few memories and some precious photographs, which when they crop up are like postcards sent from the past.

One photograph that I was quite excited to come across is the one below. A scan that a new found friend kindly permitted me to scan, it is a rare shot taken inside Fitzpatrick’s supermarket in the very early 1970s, just as I remember it. The scene, complete with the inside ends of the checkout aisles and the cigarette display racks, brought back an instant recall of a place, its smell and of the brown paper bags the shopping would be packed into. I remember the latter especially well and a time when plastic bags, now a scourge to the environmental, were much less used widely used. Much was also reused and recycled such as the cartons that one picked up from a pile on the left after the checkouts that the shopping, particularly the heavier items were sometimes packed into.



 





Where dogs, politicians and the postman once met

6 11 2012

One of the quieter stretches of today’s Orchard Road has to be the less trodden path that takes one from Killiney Road towards what is today a four way junction with Buyong Road, across from where the Concorde Hotel (ex Le Méridien Hotel) is. Walking down it I am often taken back to a time when Orchard Road was a very different place, a place lined with car showrooms, the odd supermarket, and lots of old shophouses that lined both sides of what has today become a sea of malls, and when the stretch that I speak of was where the headquarters of the ruling political party, the People’s Action Party or PAP, had been located.

Orchard Circus in days when Orchard Road was a much quieter place. To the left of the clump of palm trees is where the entrance to the Istana is.

Map of general area today with overlay of road layout in 1978.

Besides the PAP having their headquarters there until 1978 (when they moved to another of their former HQs at Napier Road), the stretch was home to headquarters of the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The SPCA occupied a premises the entrance of which was by the side of a building that was the former Orchard Road Post Office (across from where Buyong Road met Orchard Road) – a sign over its entrance could not be missed. The former Orchard Road Post Office which was built in 1902, had by the time I got to see the building, long moved out when the Killiney Road Post Office (which opened in 1963) was built to replace it when that magnificent building it occupied proved too small (there were initial thoughts to expand the building – but due to limitations of the site, a new building was instead planned).

The shophouse lined stretch of Orchard Road is seen between Specialist Centre at the top of the picture and United Motor Works (building seen with the AC Spark Plug Advertisement – with words “Hot Tip”) in 1974 (source: http://picas.nhb.gov,sg). The gap in the buildings just beyond United Motor Works is where the SPCA / former Orchard Road Post Office was.

The former Orchard Road Post Office building in 1982, with the entrance to the SPCA next to it (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009). The post office closed in 1963 when the Killiney Road Post Office was opened.

Another photograph of the SPCA on Orchard Road from the SPCA’s website.

The premises of the SPCA were used since the organisation moved to into in 1965 (although they had maintained kennels behind it since 1954 when it was still the RPSCA), paying a nominal $1 in rent per year. The kennels were one that were regularly visited by student volunteers including some of my classmates in primary school – I recall my mother dropping me off at the premises on a few occasions in 1976 when I did accompany a classmate who helped out at the SPCA. The SPCA’s premises was acquired for redevelopment in 1983 and the SPCA moved into their current headquarters at Mount Vernon built at a cost of $1 million with money obtained from the organisation’s fund raising efforts.

The area where the SPCA / Orchard Road Post Office was.

Approximate position of the former post office building / SPCA seen against what the area is today (image of Orchard Road Post Office from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The stretch today bears little resemblance to the stretch back when the SPCA was there. Cleared completely of the buildings that had occupied it as well as with the realignment of the roads in and around it, it is hard to imagine what is today a relatively quiet and pretty green stretch, lined with shophouses all along to where its junction was with Clemenceau Avenue (where the Orchard Circus, which went in 1967) had once been.