The Jacksons of Sembawang

30 07 2019

Sembawang is one of just a few places in Singapore in which still holds the charm of a bygone era. The modern world, dominated by the sea of concrete is however, knocking increasing at its door; its latest convert being the the wonderful settings that lent context to (old) Admiralty House. The National Monument, built as the home of Commander of the huge British naval base in 1940, has seen the isolation it was provided with taken away in the effort to provide residents in the area with a sports and community hub. Similarly threatened with modernisation is the area by the coast just east of Sembawang Park and once an area of idyllic seaside villages where the villages of the new world have started to take root. One project that quite thankfully bucks the trend is the recently announced dementia-care village at Gibraltar Crescent. Currently the subject of a URA tender exercise, the village will make use of existing structures inherited from the days of the naval base and (hopefully) preserve some of the environment that the structures now find themselves in – at least for a 30-year period following the award of the tender.

A window into the past.

A quiet area of seemingly typical colonial residences,  a closer examination of the buildings of Gibraltar Crescent will reveal that they are actually quite unique even if they bear quite a fair bit of resemblance to and have many of the features of the residences that have come to be described as “black and white houses”. With the exception of a building that served as the former Dockyard Theatre or the “Japanese Theatre”, the longer than typical structures are raised on concrete columns of a height sufficient to permit a person to walk comfortably underneath the floorboards. Wood is also the main material on the buildings and masonry seems to have been used quite sparingly and used, besides in the supporting columns, in wet areas and in the ground level service structures. Quite interesting because of the wood featured in the buildings’ exterior walls, the structures tended to look more black than white in the days of the naval base as black bituminous paints that weatherproofed the wood.

A view towards the former Dockyard Theatre – a uniquely built structure along Gibraltar Crescent. It is the only large building along the street that is not raised on columns.

There are quite good reasons for the features adopted in the buildings, which were among the first to be erected by the contractor for the naval base, Sir John Jackson & Co, for the purposes of housing its European staff. Known as The “Jacksons” for this reason, they were completed in mid-1929. Features found in other “black and whites”, such as the raised supports, generous verandahs and openings, pitched roofs and wooden floorboards, kept the interiors cool, airy and bright. Although now among the oldest “permanent” residences in the former naval base, as well as being the first to have been purpose built, the buildings were intended as quasi-permanent residences and hence the extensive use of wood.

The Jacksons are raised on concrete supports and feature wooden walls except in the service areas and wet spaces.

Two “Jacksons” under construction in April 1929 (online at National Archives of Singapore).

It is also interesting to note how the various residences, while similar in appearance, have been laid out in what seems to be two distinct arrangements. One type seems to have had more of a layout with more common spaces and was perhaps used to house the lower ranking staff. This design has a centrally arranged service area and besides the access staircases at the back has two arranged at each end in the buildings’ front. The other design seems to have been subdivided into individual units, each with a service area and with what appears to have been an access staircase at both the front and the back.

A unit with a layout that lends itself to a more dorm-like use.

A Jackson which would have been subdivided into three individual units – each with its own service area.

Reports relating to the construction of the base, point to it being one of the largest engineering projects in the world at the time. The contractor employed a daily average of 3,000 coolies and had at least 30 European staff at any one point supervising through the 8 year period (from 1928 to 1936) over which the main contract was executed. The reports point to some 23 residences were built for European staff, along with numerous coolie lines. The residences were eventually handed over the the Admiralty and several among the 23 survived including the structures that are now the subject of the tender survived the war.

The front of one of the Jacksons with projections that would have served as staircase landings.

An exception may have been the Dockyard Theatre, the site of which, based on older maps seems to have been occupied by another of the “Jacksons”. Thought to have been constructed during the occupation – hence the references to it as the “Japanese Theatre” – the multi-use hall is built on a ground-level platform of concrete and is also built primarily of wood. The theatre was used as a to hold live performances including pantomimes and performances by the Naval Base Singers, as well as serving as a hall in which badminton was played in the period after the war until the British pull-out in 1971.

One of two access staircases at the rear in the first type of residence.

The verandah of the second type with privacy screens at what would have been the boundaries of the individual units.

Inside one of the residences.

Inside one of the residences.

Inside one of the residences. 


News related to the tender for the dementia care village:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Discovering the former View Road Hospital (2019)

15 07 2019

Registration for the event has closed as of 7.40 pm on 15 July 2019.

More on the series, which is being organised in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA): Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets.


No. 10 View Road is perhaps best known as the former View Road Hospital, a branch of Woodbridge Hospital (now the Institute of Mental Health) until the early 2000s. The hospital housed and treated patients undergoing rehabilitation with many finding employment in the area.

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The complex, which sits on a hill close to Woodlands Waterfront, does have a much longer history. Completed in late 1941 in the western side of the Admiralty’s huge naval base, its grounds also contains a unique above-ground bomb-proof office. The building also provided accommodation for the Naval Base Police Force’s Asian policemen and their families from the late 1950s to 1972, during which time the Gurdwara Sabha Naval Police – a Sikh temple that has since merged with the Gurdwara Sahib Yishun – was found on its grounds. The building has also been re-purposed in recent times as as a foreign workers dormitory.

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The visit, which is supported by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), provides participants with the opportunity to learn more about the site through a guided walk through parts of the property.

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When and where:
27 July 2019, 10 am to 11.30 am
10 View Rd Singapore 757918

How to register:

Do note that spaces are limited and as this is a repeat visit, kindly register only if you have not previously participated.

Participants must be of ages 18 and above.

A unique registration is required for each participant. Duplicate registrations in the same name will count as one.

Registration shall be made using the form at this link (closed as of 7.40 pm 15 Jul 2019).

A confirmation will be sent to the email address used in registration to all successful registrants one week prior to the visit. This email will confirm your place and also include instructions pertaining to the visit. Please ensure that the address entered on the form is correct.


 





Going, going, gone … the tiger of Short and Selegie

29 05 2019

A building that has long marked the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road, the former “Tiger Balm Building”1, is no more. Topped once by a tiger as a mark of its association with the Haw Par Brothers famous cure-all ointment, the uniquely shaped building was demolished quite recently to allow a luxury car “vending machine” to take its place.

Going … going … gone … 2016, 2018, 2019.

Laid on an isosceles-trapezoid plan, the edifice came up in the 1930s as Eng Aun Tong’s “The Tiger Medical Hall”. Well photographed even in its early days, a rather iconic image captured of it by the legendary Carl Mydans in 1941 made its way into LIFE Magazine’s 21 July edition of that year in a feature on Singapore under the title “Singapore is a Modern City of Self-Made Millionaires”. Captioned “Singapore’s most picturesque millionaire sells his patent medicine under a clock tower”, the “picturesque millionaire” in question, Mr. Aw Boon Haw, was the man largely responsible for Tiger Balm’s and Haw Par Brothers’ success. The “picturesque” side of him was the tiger-striped car he drove, questionable (or “illicit” as alleged by LIFE) enterprises, and most certainly Tiger Balm Garden – a.k.a. Haw Par Villa.

A photograph in LIFE Magazine’s 21 Jul 1941 edition, captioned “Singapore’s most picturesque millionaire sells his patent medicine under a clock tower” [Carl Mydans, © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted]

Known also as “Tiger Balm Clock-Tower Building” in its early days, the tower – by the time the late 1960s had arrived – was made much less distinct through the addition of a fourth floor to what the building’s original three-levels. This came well after the building had already been repurposed in 1955 as Chung Khiaw Bank’s second Singapore branch. Chung Khiaw Bank, another of Aw Boon Haw’s ventures, was a “small man’s bank” that Boon Haw established to allow those in the lower income groups to gain access to financing.

Another one from the 1930s. From the Collectors Gallery, Mad on Collections (https://madoncollections.com/).

Occupants of the building’s two upper floor “flats” in its early days as the Tiger Medical Hall, included Narayanswamy & Sons – the sole distributor of Mysore Sandal(wood) Soap, and, the Butterfly Permanent Wave (salon). The only plans I have been able to locate thus far are for the addition of cubicles on the building’s second floor in 1937, drawn up and submitted by a Chan Yee Lim2 on behalf of Haw Par Brothers’ Ltd.  Once of Booty and Edwards and later of J. B. Westerhout, Chan – who came over who came over from Hong Kong in 1888 and qualified as an architect in 1915 – was already on his own by the time. His work included Catholic High School at 222 Queen Street, and the Carmelite Convent at Bukit Teresa. While it may be possible that Chan had also been the building’s architect, the plans do not conclusively say that he was.

The building in 2010.

The building in 2014.

On the subject of plans, it seems interesting that a “Tiger Theatre” was to have been built on the site adjacent to the Tiger Balm Building around the same period, separated by a backlane. Designed by Frank W. Brewer for Peter Chong, the idea for the 856-seat cinema was rejected by the Municipal Commissioners on grounds that there was no provision for parking. Despite its name, the cinema had no apparent association to Tiger Balm.

The building seen in a late 1945 Imperial War Museums photograph of a victory procession of Indian Muslims following the end of the war © IWM (SE 5096).

The tiger that topped the building – a familiar sight through much of my childhood – disappeared some time in the late 1970s when United Overseas Bank (UOB) raised a symbol of their own.  UOB had by that time, acquired a majority interest in the bank. Chung Khiaw Bank would however retained its name through much of the period, when became a fully owned subsidiary in 1988, and until it was fully absorbed by UOB in 1999.

The building topped by the UOB symbol in 1980 (NAS).

Among the businesses that had been housed in the building after the branch closed, were the offices and a small food court of Banquet Holdings Pte. Ltd. (the operator of halal food courts that has since gone under). A string of food and beverage outlets made brief appearances in more recent time. These included the Tea Culture Academy and Rayz Bistro. The building had in fact been threatened with demolition as far back as 2009. A 12 storey entertainment hub, named “10 Square”, was then proposed. Autobahn Motors, who had been behind this earlier proposal, now aims to put up the 20-deck “vending maching” – also named Ten Square. This looks to be along the lines of the one Autobahn already operates in Jalan Kilang with the exception of its shape and capacity. This, based on information on the site, should be completed by early next year.


Notes:
1
See also : When did the tiger at the corner of Selegie Road and Short Street go missing?

2 What may also be interesting about Chan Yee Lim, a prominent member of the congregation of the Church of Sacred Heart in Tank Road was that one of his eight children, Monsignor Francis Chan, was the Roman Catholic Diocese of Penang’s first Bishop from 1955 until his death in 1967. Monsignor Chan was succeeded as Bishop of Penang by Monsignor Gregory Yong, who we know as the Archbishop of Singapore from 1977 to 2000.


 

 





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,


 

 

 





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets is back for SG Heritage Fest

5 03 2019

There will be three Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets guided visits to look forward to this March. Being held as part of Singapore Heritage Festival 2019, the visits will focus on sites used by former hospitals: View Road – former Rimau Offices / View Road Hospital (16 March), Kadayanallur Street – former St. Andrew’s Mission Hospital (23 March) and Halton Road – old Changi Hospital (30 Mar). Places are limited and registration would be necessary.

In addition to the visits, I will also be taking a walk “Down the Middle” in search of the markers that the various communities that have flavoured Middle Road over the years have left behind. The walk will be held at 4 pm on 16 Mar 2019. More information on this can be found at: https://www.heritagefestival.sg/programmes/down-the-middle.

At 5 Kadayanallur Street : a 1929 vintage Smith, Major and Stevens lift, .

Information on the Singapore Heritage Festival can be found at the festival’s site. Information related to the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets sites being visited can be found at these links:

Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets is a collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority that allows members of the public to visit to sites and properties managed by the authority that are normally closed to the public.


News on the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of guided visits:


 





Extortion on Club Street

27 02 2019

The pain of the darkest of times that descended upon Singapore 77 years ago is still found in the hearts of many. That comes as no surprise, tens of thousands disappeared in the first weeks of the Japanese Occupation; a large number it has to be assumed, victims of the vicious purge we now refer to as “Sook Ching”.

The fear that the act instilled in the local Chinese population – the target of the purge – was an intended consequence. Many among the community’s elite had supported the resistance effort against the Japanese invasion of China in one way or another. Several were in detention and needed little persuasion to “cooperate” through the formation of the compliant Overseas Chinese Association. From the association’s members, “tribute money” could also be extracted.

The first act in the sequence that would lead 50 million Straits dollars being pledged, took place on the 27th of February 1942- as the murderous purge was being enacted. Its stage was the hall of the exclusive Goh Loo Club to which several senior members of the Chinese community were summoned. High on the agenda for that tense first meeting, which was set by a collaborator of Taiwanese origin, Wee Twee Kim, was the development of proposals for “cooperation”. The meeting is depicted in a wall mural at the club’s clubhouse, in which Dr. Lim Boong Keng – the association’s president designate – can quite easily be identified.

It was at subsequent meetings when the sum of money, which amounted to 20% of what was in circulation in Singapore and Malaya, was agreed upon – which can perhaps be thought of having put an end to the purge. Raising the amount required many in Malaya and Singapore to dispose of their assets, and depleted the savings the Chinese population held. It also took two deadline extensions and a loan of $22 million (taken from the Yokohama Specie Bank). A cheque would eventually be presented to General Tomoyuki Yamashita by Dr. Lim on 25 June 1942 at a 3 pm ceremony. This ceremony took place at the Gunseibu headquarters that was set up in the Fullerton Building.

The Goh Loo Club.
The mural.
The hall on the second level where the meeting took place.
A view of Club Street from the clubhouse.
A more agreeable depiction perhaps – with Yamashita behind bars.
A receipt to acknowledge a “donation” made towards the $50 million issued by the OCA (source: https://roots.sg/Roots/learn/collections/listing/1121258).

The Goh Loo Club

Founded in 1905, the club moved to its location on Club Street in 1927 and is one of a handful of exclusive establishments from which the street takes its name.

It was set up by a group of select Chinese businessmen and its members included Dr. Lim Boon Keng and Lee Kong Chian. Its name, 吾盧, which means “love hut” is apparently inspired by a poem written by the Jin dynasty poet Tao Yuanming in which he describes his house.

Its clubhouse bears many of the characteristics of the shophouse with the exception of its unusually large width. A consequence of this is the very obvious set of columns seen in the halls on the clubhouse’s lower floors.

Interestingly, the Basketball Association of Singapore was housed on the first level of the clubhouse from its founding in 1946, to 1971 – as can be surmised from the window grilles on the ground floor. The association was founded by Mr Goh Chye Hin, who was then the president of the Goh Loo Club.

The mural

The mural depicting the first meeting of the OCA, found on the outside wall of the clubhouse, was installed in 2016. Amongst the faces found on it is the reviled General Tomoyuki Yamashita. The mural also celebrates the members of the working-class Chinese community and prominent figures in the community such as the revolutionary leader, Dr. Sun Yat Sen.

The mural is best viewed from the compound of the Singapore Chinese Weekly Entertainment Club.

A reminder of the clubhouse’s association with the Basketball Association of Singapore.




Discovering a “not quite central” Chinese bank headquarters

16 11 2018

Designed by an architect who can be said to have left his mark in Singapore, the Art Deco building that we know today as The Quadrant was originally built as a headquarters for a Chinese bank.

The main feature of the building’s interiors was its banking hall and a mezzanine – from which bank managers could supervise the goings on in the hall below. Both are very much in evidence today, as is a bank vault, even if the building has long been re-purposed. Another highlight is a working vintage lift. Although substantially rebuilt, it has quite a number of its original components such as its counterweight, still in use.

The visit will take place on 1 December 2018. As spaces are limited to 30 pax and participants over the age of 18 years, pre-registration is required.

Do note that unique registrations are required and duplicate entries of the same particulars would count as one registration.


The visit is part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of State Property visits supported by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). This visit to The Quadrant also has the support of the Homestead Group and The Black Swan.


The Quadrant at Cecil Street.

 

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The former banking hall and the mezzanine from which the goings-on on the ground floor could be viewed by the bank’s supervising staff (courtesy of The Black Swan).

 

Up on the roof.

 

Stairway to heaven?

 

The gates of a heavenly vintage lift.

 

Some of the lift’s original mechanism.