Middle Road and the (un)European Town

26 04 2021

Street names, especially ones in common use, often tell an interesting tale. Such is the case with Middle Road. Constructed late in the first decade that followed British Singapore’s 1819 founding by Sir Stamford Raffles, parts of Middle Road have become known by a mix of names in the various vernaculars. Each provide a glimpse into the streets fascinating past, the communities it played host to and the trades and institutions that marked it. It is its official name, Middle Road, that seems to have less to reveal and what Middle Road the middle, is a question that has not been quite as adequately answered.


The Jackson Plan of 1822. Middle Road is not marked on it. Its location on this map correspond to the road passing through ‘Rocher Square’ right smack in the middle of the European quarter.

Often the resource of choice in seeking a better understanding of a Singapore street name and its origins is the book ‘Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics’, authored by Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh. The book however, does not quite provide the answer to the question of what made Middle Road the middle in explaining that the street was (or may have been) a line of demarcation between the trading post’s European Town and a designated ‘native’ settlement to its east. Reference has to be made to the 1822 Town Plan, for which Raffles’ provided a specific set of instructions, in the allocation of areas of settlement along ethnic lines with the civic and mercantile districts at the town’s centre. A set of written instructions was also provided by Raffles to members of the Town Committee. Based on the plan and the written instructions, the European Town was to have extended eastwards from the cantonment for “as far generally as the Sultan’s (settlement)”, with an ‘Arab Campong’ in between. This meant that the line demarcating the two districts was not Middle Road, but would have been Rochor Road or a parallel line to its northeast.


Middle Road is shown in the 1836 Map drawn by J B Tassin based on an 1829 survey by G D Coleman. On this I have superimposed the boundaries of the various districts based on the 1822 Town Plan. On this map, Middle Road seems to be a street that no only ran through the middle of the European Town, but was quite literally the middle road of the European Town three parallel roads.

There is an older attempt to explain what the ‘middle’ in Middle Road might have been. This was made in 1886 by T J Keaughran, a one-time employee of the Government printing office and resident of Singapore in the late 1800s. In a Straits Times article, ‘Picturesque and busy Singapore’, Keaughran described Middle Road as being “perhaps more appropriately, the central division or section of the city”. There may be some merit in this suggestion based on the 1822 Town Plan. What seems however to be more obvious is that Middle Road ran right down the middle of the European quarter. Middle Road was also, quite literally, the middle road of three parallel roads running northwest to southeast through the European Town.  

The Portuguese tradition is kept very much alive at St. Joseph’s Church (which is now under renovation).

It would appear that the European Town, or at least the section that was allocated to it, never quite developed as Raffles had envisaged. Middle Road would turn out to be the centre of many communities, none of which was quite European. Hints of European influences do however exist in the Portuguese Church and in the former St Anthony’s Convent. The Portuguese Church — as it was once commonly referred to, or St Joseph’s Church, long a focal point of Singapore’s Portuguese Eurasian community, traces it roots to the Portuguese Mission’s Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia, a one time Rector of St Joseph’s Seminary in Macau and owes much to the generosity of Portuguese physician turned settler, merchant and plantation owner, Dr Jose D’Almeida. It was in D’Almeida’s exclusive beach front house in the area that Liang Seah Street is today, that the mission’s first masses were held in 1825 – a year in which both Father Maia and Dr D’Almeida set foot on a permanent basis in Singapore.

An old letter box and signboard for the church.

The land on which the Beach Road house stood, had been procured by Dr D’Almeida during a stopover whilst on a voyage to Macau in 1819 with the help of Francis James Bernard, acting Master Attendant, son-in-law of Singapore’s first resident William Farquhar, and perhaps more famously, the great, great, great, great grandfather of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. D’Almeida also had a house built on the plot, which Bernard occupied whilst the physician was based in Macau. Political events in Portugal, and its delayed spread to Macau, would bring both Father Maia and D’Almeida to Singapore via Calcutta. D’Almeida’s Beach Road house was used to celebrate masses until 1833. A permanent church building for the Church of São José (St Joseph) would eventually be established at the corner of Victoria Street and Middle Road in the mid-1800s. What stands on the site today is a 1912 rebuild of this church. Initially administered by the Diocese of Goa and later, by the Diocese of Macau, the church’s links with Portugal were only broken in 1981, although parish priest appointments continued to be made by the Diocese of Macau until 1999 when Macau reverted to Chinese rule and the Portuguese Mission was dissolved. The church has since 1981, come under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore.

A touch of Iberia can be found in the Portuguese Church, especially during festival days.

The Portuguese Mission would also establish St Anna’s School in 1879. The school for children of poor parishioners, is the predecessor to St Anthony’s Boys’ School (now St Anthony’s Primary School) and St Anthony’s Convent (now St. Anthony’s Canossian Primary School). A spilt into a boys’ and a girls’ school in 1893 saw the two sections going their separate ways. The setting up of the girls’ school would see to an Italian flavour being added to Middle Road, when four nuns of the Italian-based Canossian order came over from Macau in 1894 to run the girls’ section. Two of the nuns were Italian and another two Portuguese and in the course of its time in Middle Road, many more nuns of Italian origin would arrive. Those who were boarders or schoolgirls from the old convent days in Middle Road will remember how old-fashioned methods of discipline that the nuns brought with them were administered in heavily accented English with a certain degree of fondness.

The first Canossians. Top – M. Giustina Sequeira, M. Matilde Rodriguez, M. Marietta Porroni, and bottom extreme right –  M. Teresa Rossi. Two others were the superiors M. Teresa Lucian and M. Maria Stella, who accompanied the four.

While the convent may have moved in 1995, the buildings that were put up over the course of the 20th century along Middle Road to serve it are still there and stands as a reminder of the work of the Canossian nuns. Now occupied by the National Design Centre, its former chapel building is also where the legacy of another Italian, Cav Rodolfo Nolli has quite literally been cast in stone. In the former convent’s chapel, now the centre’s auditorium, watchful angels in the form of cast stone reliefs made by Nolli — Nolli’s angels as I refer to them — count among the the last works that the sculptor executed here before his retirement. The angels have watched over the nuns, boarders, orphans and schoolgirls since the early 1950s and are among several lasting reminders of Cav Nolli. The Italian craftsman spent a good part of his life in Singapore, having first arrived from Bangkok in 1921. Except for a period of internment in Australia during the Second World War, Nolli was based in Singapore until 1956. His best known work in Singapore is the magnificent set of sculptures, the Allegory of Justice, found in the tympanum of the Old Supreme Court.

St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s.

Among the common names associated with Middle Road is a now a rather obscure one in the Hokkien vernacular, 小坡红毛打铁 (Sio Po Ang Mo Pah Thi). This is another that could be thought of as providing a hint of another of the street’s possible ‘ang mo’ (红毛) or European connections. The Sio Po (小坡) in the name is a reference to the ‘lesser town’ or the secondary Chinese settlement that developed on the north side of the Singapore River (as opposed to 大坡 tua po — the ‘greater town’ or Chinatown). A literal translation of Pah Thi (打铁) would be “hit iron” — a reference to an iron-working establishment, which in this case was the J M Cazalas et Fils’ (J M Cazalas and Sons’) iron and brass foundry. Established in 1856 by Mauritius born Frenchman Jean-Marie Cazalas, the foundary occupied an area bounded by Middle Road, Victoria Street, the since expunged Holloway Lane, and North Bridge Road, a site on which part of the National Library now stands.

Central Engine Works, the successor to the lesser town’s European ironworks.

The business survived in one form or another in the area right up to 1920. J M’s son, Joseph, who inherited the business, renamed it Cazalas and Fils. In 1887, Chop Bun Hup Guan bought the foundry over and had it renamed Victoria Engine Works. The last name that the business was known by was Central Engine Works, a name it acquired when it again changed hands in the 1900s. Central Engine Works’ move in 1920 to new and “more commodious” premises in Geylang, paved the way for the site’s redevelopment and saw to the removal of all traces of the foundry.  The name Central Engine Works would itself fade into oblivion when it became a victim of the poor economic conditions that persisted through much of the 1920s. The firm went into voluntary liquidation in the early 1930s. The Empress Hotel, which opened in 1928, was erected on part of the former foundry’s site and became a landmark in the area. It was known for its restaurant which produced a popular brand of mooncakes, the ‘Queen of the Mooncakes’. Looking tired and worn, the Empress Hotel came down in 1985, when the wave of urban redevelopment swept through the area.

Empress Hotel (roots.SG).

The setting up of the Cazalas foundry up came at a time when the European Town was already on its way to becoming the ‘Lesser Town’. One of the reasons contributing to the change in status of the designated European area and its choice beachfront plots may have been the preference amongst the settlement’s European ‘gentry’ for the more pleasant inland area of the island as places of residence as the interior opened up. Among the larger groups contributing to the influx of non-European settlers in the area were the Hainanese — who could be thought of as ‘latecomers’ to the Chinese Nanyang diaspora. The Hainanese established clan or bang boarding houses in the area and by 1857, a temple dedicated to Mazu was erected at Malabar Street. Middle Road became the Hainanese 海南一街 or Hylam Yet Goi. The area is today still thought of as a spiritual home to the community, who today form the fifth largest of the various Chinese dialect groups in Singapore. The Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan and the Tin Hou Kong (the since relocated Mazu temple) is also present in the area at Beach Road. The area can also be thought of as the home of the Singapore brand of Hainanese Chicken Rice having been were it was conceived and for many years served by its inventor.

The house of the rising sun (take not of the pediment) — a reminder of the Japanese Community, which made Middle Road home from the end of the 1800s to 1941. At its height, the community numbered several thousands.

Among other names associated with Middle Road was 中央通り(Chuo Dori), Japanese for ‘Central Street’ and the محلة (Mahallah) — an Arabic term meaning ‘place’ and used by the Sephardic Jewish community who came through Baghdad to describe the Jewish neighbourhood that formed at the end of the 19th century in and around the northwest end of Middle Road. There were also a host of names in Hokkien that refer to Mangkulu 望久鲁 or Bencoolen — a reference to the Kampong Bencoolen, which was established in the area.

A marker of the Mahallah, the David Elias Building with its star of David.

One name that includes the name is 望久鲁车馆 or Mangkulu Chia Kuan — the jinrikisha registration station in the area that later became the Registry of Vehicles (where Sunshine Plaza is today. As with the station at Neil Road, a station was established in the Middle Road area due to the proliferation rickshaw coolie kengs or quarters and rickshaw operators in the area, many of which were run by other groups of late arrivals among the Chinese migrants, the Hokchia and the Henghwa. Also mixed into the area around the Lesser Town as the years went by were other migrant communities, who included Hakkas, the people of Sam Kiang (the three ‘kiangs‘ or ‘jiangs‘ — Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Jiangxi) who are sometimes described as Shanghainese, South Indians and Sikhs. The people of Sam Kiang were quite prominent and featured in the furniture making and piano trading businesses, books and publishing, and tailoring — Chiang Yick Ching, who founded CYC Shirts at Selegie Road was an immigrant from Ningbo in Zhejiang as was Chou Sing Chu, the founder of Popular Book Store at North Bridge Road. The Hakkas were involved in the canvas trade, and were opticians and watch dealers. They were also the shoe making and shoe last making factories around Middle Road, which was once a street known for it Chinese shoe shops.

Right next to the David Elias Building is the former Dojin Hospital, which was erected before the war to serve the Japanese Community.

Various communities and institutions populating the post-1850s ‘European Town’





History Misunderstood: Changi Point

5 04 2021

Set in scenic surroundings in Singapore’s rustic north-eastern corner, the area we refer to as Changi Point, is one in which I have found great joy in. It is an area of much beauty with much of its natural geographical features intact and wears a charm that is little changed from the time I first interacted with it more than half a century ago. Over the years, I have also discovered that the area is one with quite a history; a history that is even recorded in maps of a 17th century battle off Changi. Also as fascinating is Changi Point and its more recent past, one that goes back to the early decades of Singapore as a British East India Company trading port.

Changi today – with a view towards Pulau Ubin

Remote and inhospitable and with its surroundings dominated by mangrove and terrestrial forests in British Singapore’s earliest years, Changi Point’s charm must have already been in evidence then; so much so that several adventurous souls amongst the gentry recognised its potential as a spot for a retreat.  Among the first to see this was Mr Gottlieb, who put up Fairy Point bungalow on what could be thought of as the prime of prime locations on the seaward side of an elevation he christened Fairy Point Hill.

Fairy Point – the site of Mr Gottlieb’s Bungalow

In addition to Mr Gottlieb’s place of escape, the government had also had a bungalow built. Besides serving as a stay-over location for officers sent to the remote area for surveys, its use was extended for leisure purposes.  By the mid-1840s, Changi Bungalow – as it had come to be known, had gained the reputation of being a “fashionable resort for picnic parties”. Constructed of wood, the bungalow had to be rebuilt several times over the years with its last iteration being demolished in 1965. The expansive grounds of the bungalow is an area that until today, has been in the hands of Singapore’s successive governments and amongst the structures now found on it is the 1950 built Changi Cottage, as well as several other holiday facilities.

Changi Cottage

One holiday home from Changi’s past that is still standing is a bungalow that belonged to Mr Ezekiel S Manasseh, who is often confused with Sir Manasseh Meyer. A founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, Mr E S Manasseh is better known for his mansion in Tanglin, Eden Hall, which is the British High Commissioner’s residence today. Mr Manasseh also maintained a holiday home in Changi Point. Located on the left bank of Changi Creek, he often extended its use to newlyweds for their honeymoon early in the 1900s. The bungalow stands today as the CSC Clubhouse.

Muslim graves at the foot of Batu Puteh Hill – a reminder perhaps of Kampong Batu Puteh.

Around this time (the early 1900s), a Japanese owned hotel also made an appearance along the beach just east of Fairy Point in the area of a Malay kampung named Kampong Batu Puteh.  The wooden hotel, which was perched on stilts that extended across the foreshore, was rumoured to have offered more than a getaway and was rumoured to have been a place of ill repute. Whatever the hotel may have offered, time would soon be called on it with events on the world’s stage setting a new course for Changi Point.

While the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not affect Singapore directly, its impact was and would be felt in many ways, not least through the fluctuations in the price of rubber through the war. There was also that episode of the insurrection that began at Alexandra Barracks during Chinese New Year in 1915 that was founded partly on a rumour being spread among the Sepoy Muslim mutineers  that they were being sent to Mesopotamia to fight fellow Muslims. Among Britain’s allies who responded to calls for help were some 190 Japanese resident volunteers, and another force of 142 from two Japanese naval ships.

Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Mutiny at Victoria Concert Hall

The Imperial Japanese Navy had been on the rise for a number of decades. Having acquired knowhow to build its own naval hardware as well as in naval tactics from Britain and France, by the time the war started, the Japanese navy was in a good position to support its allies in the Entente. Japan actions in the naval arena would also however lay its ambitions bare, especially in regard to German held territory in China. The sense of discomfort in Britain grew in the post-war period with Japan having the third largest navy in the world after the United States and Britain. By 1921, a decision had been taken by Britain to protect its Far East interests through the construction of a huge naval base in Singapore.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s – the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today (source: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

A consequence of building the naval base in Singapore, and having it sited in Seletar – as the Sembawang area was also known as, was in the placement of coastal artillery around Changi to defend the base against naval attack. Changi, located at the eastern entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait, was hence, strategically sited at the entrance to the naval base. With the need to install, man, maintain and protect the guns, Changi was also developed as a military cantonment.

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

The first section of the cantonment was built at Changi Point. Work progressed in in a stop-start manner, first from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1933 to 1935, due to the evolving political situation in Britain.  Being the first barracks on site and located in a prime location, this section became the home of Royal Engineers’ units as Kitchener Barracks. There would also be barracks constructed for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks and for infantry units at Selarang Barracks. In addition to these, a few other camps were also established for the rank and file among the British Indian Army troops protecting the area.

Selarang Barracks Officers’ Mess

The huge investment in the base and in facilities at Changi and elsewhere across the island did little in terms of doing what it was meant to do and on 15 February 1942, the “impregnable fortress” that Singapore had been touted as, fell into the hands of Japanese forces – a mere two months after Japan launched its invasion of Malaya. Except for the feint assault on Pulau Ubin on the eve of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore, and the firing of Changi’s huge coastal guns against advancing Japanese troops, Changi would see little in terms of military action in the lead up to this inglorious fall. Contrary to popular belief, the guns were used with at least one of the monster guns of the Johore Battery firing about eighty rounds before its rifling started to protrude. Although the guns were fired, they did little to stop the advance. The armour piercing rounds that they were supplied with in anticipation of a naval assault, were ineffective against ground forces. On 12 February 1942, with Japanese forces made rapid progress coming down the down and west, the order was given to units defending Changi to pull back to Singapore’s urban centre. The cantonment and its lightly damaged buildings were left empty, and Changi’s guns destroyed. It would be some days later, on 17 February 1942, that Changi would come into the spotlight.

The spiked No 2 Gun, one of three 15″ guns of the Johore Battery.

The Fall of Singapore left the Japanese invasion forces with quite a big headache. With tens of thousands of surrendering British and Australian led personnel from units that made the retreat down Malaya and troops defending Singapore, they were overwhelmed. There was the need to accommodate, secure and maintain the discipline among the Prisoners of War (POWs) and a solution provided by Changi and its abandoned cantonment. On 17 February 1942, some 50,000 prisoners-of-war or POWs, were made to march to Changi to occupy its various barracks and camps.

Barrack Hill in Kitchener Barracks – part of the POW camp for Southern Area forces from Feb 1942 to May 1943.

The former Kitchener Barracks was used to accommodate members of the Southern Area forces with some 15,000  Australian POWs occupying Selarang.  The POW hospital was also to be centralised in Roberts Barracks on 26 February 1942, one of two sites – the other being Selarang – at which hospitals were established prior to the Fall of Singapore and immediately after the POWs were moved to Changi.  It would be in the chapel at Roberts Hospital that the famous Changi Murals would be painted. The murals still exist today. Found in Block 151 in Changi Air Base West, they are quite unfortunately out of bounds to members of the public. In the early part of camp life, there had apparently been minimal contact with their captors, with prisoners being tasked with wiring themselves into the various barrack areas as well as taking care of their own discipline.

Block 151. Now in Changi Air Base West, this was one of the Roberts Barracks blocks that served as the POW Hospital from February 1942 until September 1943.

Life as a POW in Changi, and in Kitchener Barracks was tough for many reasons and not least through the lack of food and nutrition as well as the diseases that the POWs were exposed to due to conditions in captivity. Still, many found the strength to go on through the activities that were organised. Sports became a means to provide distractions to the routine of life as a POW – at least in the first year of captivity. Among the ranks were several professional sportsmen, including Johnny Sherwood, a footballer who played in the war time FA Cup final.  The sports fields and facilities that the barracks in Changi had been provided with proved useful with cricket and football matches being played on them. Theatrical performances were also organised and college level courses. In Kitchener, classes of the Southern Area College were taught by academics, some of whom were from Raffles College. Several were members of volunteer units which had been placed under the Fortress Singapore command.

The Changi Padang – it was used for sporting activities during the first year of POW captivity.

In the many comparisons that were made by POWs at Changi, there is a consistent theme of how life may have been hard, but was in fact “heaven” compared to what many were to face elsewhere. Throughout the initial period of captivity starting in April 1942, work teams were organised and sent to various of Singapore to work on building and construction projects. Teams would also be sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, which the Japanese were constructing to provide a supply line to support their push into Burma and towards the Indian subcontinent. Often described as the “Death Railway” it was where the POWs really suffered, being put to hard labour. Besides an extreme lack of nutrition, POWs also suffered from deliberating diseases, with many succumbing to them.  

River Kwai, Kanchanaburi in Thailand in Dec 1984, the area was where many POWs were sent from Singapore to work on the Death Railway .

Kitchener Barracks, being where the bulk of the troops defending Singapore were being held – as opposed to troops that had made the retreat down Malaya – had the healthiest POWs and hence, was where many of the members of the first working teams were drawn from. By May 1943, POW numbers had dwindled to the point that Kitchener Barracks was closed as a POW camp and in September 1943, Roberts was similarly closed, with the POWs and the POW Hospital being concentrated at Selarang Barracks. Both Kitchener and Roberts Barracks were taken over by Imperial Japanese Army units who were involved in the construction of an airstrip at Changi. This started with POW labour in September 1943 and by the end of 1944, the airstrip was operational.

While all this was happening, returning POWs from the Death Railway were placed at Selarang Camp and also at Sime Road Camp. A change in POW administration would however see the POWs concentrated in Changi Prison and its grounds from May 1944. Civilian internees, who were being held at Changi Prison from February 1942 to May 1944 were moved to Sime Road to make way for the POWs.

The main Changi Prison gate – one of the structures of the prison that has been kept. The prison was a site of civilian internment from Feb 1942 until May 1944, following which POWs were moved in.

One of the myths that have been spread about Changi and the POW experience is that of the hospital in Kitchener Barracks being a place of torture by the Kempeitai. There is however no basis for this myth. Not only was there no functioning hospital in Kitchener Barracks during the period of captivity, there are certainly not reports or accounts that exist. Instances of torture by the Kempeitai did however take place in the wake of Operation Jaywick, which involved a commando raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. During what has been termed as the “Double-Tenth Incident”, civilian internees at Changi Prison were suspected of aiding the commandos through radio transmissions. Several were interrogated and executed in exercise that would involve the arrest and subsequent torture of Elizabeth Choy at the YMCA in Orchard Road.

Changi would find a new purpose after the war. The Royal Air Force (RAF) found the airstrip that the Japanese had added particularly useful in landing transport aircraft bringing in much needed supplies. This would lead to the strengthening and subsequent use of the runway for the RAF’s heavy aircraft and the setting up of RAF Changi, an air station that would become the RAF’s principal air station in the Far East. The former Kitchener Barracks, would become the headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) command, with Barrack Hill, renamed FEAF Hill. The roads in the area, were also renamed after RAF air stations.

A view from FEAF Hill

To support the new air station, more accommodation was also added across the area, starting with several single floor bungalows. A number of semi-detached accommodation would also be added. Many of these buildings can still be found. In addition to this, a hospital was set up for the RAF on FEAF Hill. This initially involved the former sick quarters on top of the hill (renamed Block 37) and the former H-Block – a three-storey barrack block of Kitchener Barracks which was turned into a ward block 24. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, transfer pf patients between the two blocks required an ambulance. The construction of a third block – the six storey Block 161 (with four usable floors) – with lifts and walkways to connect the two older blocks in 1962, helped ease that burden.    

Blocks 161 and 24 of the former Changi Hospital.

Following the pull-out of British Forces in 1971, the former barracks were put to use in several ways with the barrack blocks along Hendon Road accommodating Singapore’s Commando Unit and several of the accommodation units being turned into holiday facilities for civil servants. Sports and recreation clubs, such as the Changi Swimming Club, the Beach Club and the Sailing Club were also established using existing facilities left by the RAF. One outcome of the development of the air base, is the idea of developing Changi also for civil aviation. There were in fact plans announced in 1948 to develop a world class airport in Changi . That did not quite happen, but the idead came up once more in the 1970s leading to the development of Changi Airport.

One of the post WW2 semi-detached additions, seen in September 1987. These served as married quarters during the RAF days and were converted for use as government holiday chalets in the 1970s.

Today, much of the area of the former Kitchener Barracks and the RAF camp is still intact. Many of the sites and structures completed from 1928 to 1935, including barrack blocks and residences are still standing. Some, such as have gain prominence having been used by Raintr33 Hotel and Changi Hospital. There are also some still in use, such as BNP Paribas APAC Training Centre, Coastal Settlement, and the recreational spaces such as the former Officers’ Club – now the Beach Club and the Yacht Club – now Changi Sailing Club. There are also the oldest structures – the officers’ residences at Batu Puteh Hill and Fairy Point Hill, including one, that sits on the site of Mr Gottlieb’s demolished bungalow. The collection of barrack structures of the former Kitchener Barracks, are perhaps the last, almost complete set of structures from the interwar militarisation of Singapore that is still around, structures which tell a story of Changi’s development, of war, and of how through a series of twists and turns, it became a key aviation staging ground for the RAF and then for Singapore.





The Last Christmas

12 01 2021

Robinsons, which shut down over the weekend, had a long association with Christmas and had Singapore dreaming of its very first white Christmas in 1949.


Robinsons’ last Christmas, 2020.

For a while, Christmas in Singapore wouldn’t be Christmas without a visit to Robinsons. The store — a long time Singaporean retail institution, which had a strong link with the year end season of cheer, had its long and eventful history brought to a sad end when it shut its doors for good on 9 January 2021 – just a few weeks short of its 163 birthday.

Robinsons – building it occupied at Raffles Place from 1891 to 1941, prior to moving across the square to Raffles Chambers.

Growing up, Robinsons was certainly the place to go to get a feel of Christmas. The prospect of having to say hello to Father Christmas, of whom I was terrified, did not stop me from visiting the toy department. Robinsons vast array of toys made its toy department possibly the largest in Singapore at that time. Even if there wasn’t much prospect of getting my hands on what I truly desired, it made it the place to be at, if only to gawk at the toy selection and a model railway that never failed to have me enthralled. There was also the Christmas lucky dip to turn towards if all manners of persuasion at getting a toy that I badly wanted failed. For the price of what may have been two bowls of noodles, the gifts that one pulled out of the dip did sometimes surprise and I obtained one of my favourite toys in this manner, an orange battery operated submarine.

Raffles Chambers, Christmas 1966.

Those were days when Robinsons occupied its rather iconic Raffles Chambers premises in a building that, quite tragically, was destroyed in a huge fire that claimed nine lives in November 1972. The old building in Raffles Place was not Robinsons first store. It moved to it late in 1941, just a month or so before the war came to Singapore. It was however a location that was Robinsons’ most recognised and remembered in its stores right up to the point at which it closed. Raffles Chambers was also where Robinson’s introduced some of its more elaborate ways to welcome the season — a season that for Robinsons must have had the cash registers ringing for many years. Among the innovative ways in which Christmas came to Robinsons at Raffles Chambers was with Singapore’s very first “White Christmas” — when a movie set snowstorm blew in a Christmas themed display in a shop window. Snow made from chemically treated fibre was brought over from England for this with fans used to blow fake snow around the set.

A 1930s newspaper advertisement – Robinsons has had a long association with Christmas.

The history of Robinsons went back to February 1858, when Philip Robinson — who had arrived from Melbourne just the year before, and James Gaborian Spicer, established Spicer and Robinson. The “family warehouse” dealt in a large assortment of imported household goods, outfitting and foods from its premises at 9 and 10 Commercial Square or Raffles Place. The partnership did not last very long. In October 1858, Spicer pulled out of the arrangement and as Robinson and Co, the store continued operating with Robinson and a new found partner George Rappa Jr at the helm. The store prospered, and after being on the move and moving out of Raffles Place, eventually found a large “warehouse” back in Raffles Place in 1891. By that time Robinson and Co operated departments for drapery, hosiery, haberdashery, furnishings, motors and cycles, photographic apparatus and sports requisites. The store also dealt with arms and ammunition, as sole agents for Messrs Kynochs, a Birmingham based ammunition manufacturer.

Raffles Places in the late 1800s.

Soon after its move across the square to Raffles Chambers, the first Japanese bombs fell on Singapore in December 1941. The building would be partially damaged by the air raids twice — on 8 December 1941 and on 13 February 1942, even if it continued operations before eventually closing when Singapore fell. The occupation years brought a different occupant in the form of a Japanese department store, Matsuzakaya, which moved into the premises on 21 March 1943 after extensive repairs that were partially paid for by the Japanese military were made to the building. Robinsons would only return in June 1946, operating first on the ground floor and the basement before the building was fully returned by the British Military. A Royal Air Force amenities store in the interim following the reoccupation of Singapore in September 1945.

The iconic Raffles Chambers, which was topped by a statue of Mercury, was built to house another store, Katz Brothers, in 1912 (postcard: roots.sg).

The post war years would see Robinsons prosper further and lead the way in innovations. In June 1955, the store became the first department store in Malaya and Singapore to be fitted with full air-conditioning. The tragic fire of 1972 brought an end to Robinsons connection with Raffles Place and perhaps heralded the beginning of the end for the long time shopping icon. The store was able to reestablish itself on Orchard Road — first at Specialists Shopping Centre before making a move to Centrepoint in 1983. Several changes of ownership and the store’s opening of several branches did little to stem Robinsons slow slide into obscurity. In 2013, Robinsons moved its flagship store to The Heeren, which was given a more upmarket feel. That perhaps put the final nail in its coffin for the old store. In October 2020, Robinsons announced its intention to close and on 16 December 2020 it closed its flagship store and on 9 January 2020, its last store at Raffles City.

When Robinsons had its flagship store at Centrepoint
Its flagship store at The Heeren
Its last window display at its Raffles City store
Its iconic Raffles Chambers store remembered in the Raffles City outlet

Parting Glances – A Last Look at Robinsons





Remembering Dakota (Crescent)

5 01 2021

Dakota Crescent — part of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) 1958 development that was known as Old Kallang Airport Estate — will not be forgotten for two reasons. The first, is that six out of seventeen of its block that are representative of the former estate, including a 1970s playground that the six are arranged around, are being kept as part of a future housing development.

The second reason is the widely circulated myth that the fatal Dakota DC-3 crash that Dakota Crescent is said to have been named after, occured at Kallang Airport in a thunderstorm on 29 June 1946. While it can be established that DC-3 carrying 22 crew and Royal Air Force personnel that originated from Kallang on the date did crash in bad weather, it can also be established that where the crash happened was not at Kallang but in northern Malaya and after the aircraft had taken off at Butterworth on its way to Mingaladon.

How I will remember Dakota, is through the various visits that I made to the old estate and through the photographs that I took of it. My impressions of it was that the estate was worn, tired looking and had seen much better days. Still there was much to take in and much to capture and in this post are a few that I wish to share.


Remembering Dakota





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.






Colonial Changi – a virtual tour

8 11 2020

Join me on a virtual tour of Colonial Changi (including Old Changi Hospital) during Temasek Polytechnic’s Global Community Day, from 9 to 15 November 2020 (public virtual tours available on 15 November at this link).

The former RAF Hospital Changi – a point of interest on the virtual tour.

Changi, a promontory at the eastern tip of the main island of Singapore is marked in maps that date back to the early seventeenth century. It is however, its development during the colonial era that is perhaps most significant. That saw its transformation from a remote, forested and swampy corner of the island into one of Britain’s most important air bases after the second world war.

Pagar Beach

While a large portion of the area is today used by the air force as an air base, for leisure and recreation, there is much that exists that tells us the story of colonial Changi development. A wealth of information does in fact exist in structures still around such as former barrack blocks, former holiday homes, and purpose-built military residences as well as objects, sites and geographical features.

Married Soldiers’ Quarters – developed as part of Changi’s militarisation

The virtual tour will trace Changi’s development from a village and recreational retreat through the 1800s into the early 1900s into a military cantonment — that featured in the early part of the Japanese Occupation during the Second World War as an Prisoner-of-War camp — and beyond that into a principal air base and the aviation hub that is well-known today.

More information can be obtained at this link.






Cashin’s Pier, lost and found

19 08 2020

Built by Alexander Cashin in 1906 to provide for the transportation of rubber from the Cashin estate to Kranji, The Pier in Lim Chu Kang became a retreat for the Cashin family in the 1920s when it was converted into a sea pavilion. As one of two sea pavilions to have survived intact to this day, it is a rare example of an age of seaside retreats as well as a reminder of a time when there were boundaries between Singapore and its northern neighbour meant little — the Sultan of Johor made visits to it on his boat.

The Pier in 2011.

The pavilion, which saw action during the invasion of Singapore — it was one of the landing points during the first wave of attacks the Japanese launched on Singapore on the night of 8 Feb 1942 — became a home to Howard Cashin and family in the 1960s. Among the work that Howard Cashin had to carry out to transform The Pier into a home was the removal of a Shinto shrine that the Japanese had erected.

Another view of The Pier from 2011.

The house has been left vacant since 2009 following Mr Cashin’s passing. In 2013 it was announced that the house was to be a gateway to and expanded Sungei Buloh Nature Park and we hear from NParks today that it will now be part of what has been rebranded as Lim Chu Kang Nature Park.

More on The Pier: A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang

From NParks Press Release
(Full Press release here)

Lim Chu Kang Nature Park – a new nature area towards the west of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The 18-hectare green corridor that forms a continuous coastal extension west of the Reserve towards the Lim Chu Kang nature area, will be conserved as Lim Chu Kang Nature Park. It comprises a variety of habitats such as mangroves, woodlands, scrublands and grasslands. The diversity of habitats provides homes to coastal birds such as the Grey-headed Fish Eagle and grassland dwellers like the Baya Weaver. The new Nature Park, formerly referred to as Western Extension, will feature outdoor nature-play spaces inspired by the various habitats and its inhabitants, encouraging children and youths to spend more time outdoors and reconnect with nature.

Lim Chu Kang Nature Park will also encompass Cashin House, a building that will be enhanced sensitively for both natural and built heritage and will be used for educational programmes. Cashin House will include new facilities such as an exhibition space, seminar rooms for workshops and a seaview terrace. The surrounding area will be kept rustic and existing vegetation retained and sensitively enhanced. Visitors will be able to enjoy exploring Cashin House and its surroundings while learning about the historical significance of the area.

NParks will shortly be calling a tender for works on Cashin House and its surrounding areas. Works are expected to commence in 4Q 2020, and slated to be completed in early 2022, subject to the evolving COVID-19 situation.





Tanglin’s 1884 garrison chapel?

18 08 2020

There is little doubt that The White Rabbit, an exclusive dining destination in the former Tanglin Barracks, occupies a building that was built as a small church. The only question is when. Little does seem to have been documented about the building, or its history other than the fact that it was used in the post-British military pull-out era as a chapel — the Ebenezer Chapel — for two different Protestant denominations, before its conversion. There is also that suggestion that the church building dates back to the 1930s, although it does seem to predate that. One less known but well established fact, is that it served the barracks’ Roman Catholic congregation in its post-second-world-war era until the pull-out as the Church of Christ the King (no relation to the Roman Catholic church in Ang Mo Kio of the same name, a period of time when it play host to quite a few weddings.

The White Rabbit at 39C Harding Road.

It is its location, relative to the former Tanglin Barracks’ garrison church of St George — across what used to be the barracks’ parade ground, that holds a clue to its origins. Now a parish church of the Anglican church’s diocese of Singapore and a National Monument, St George’s was built in the second decade of the twentieth century to replace an older and smaller garrison church that based on the church’s publications was erected in 1884 and was located west of St George’s. The position of The White Rabbit, on the western edge of the parade grounds — a venue for the church parade services that the British military had a tradition of — and on a site that is shown in pre-St George’s era maps (including one produced in 1892) to be occupied by a similarly proportioned structure, provides a strong hint that The White Rabbit was that older 1884 church. Along with this, the existence of a photograph taken in 1903 in Tanglin Barracks provides further evidence that the structure, in what is more or less its current form and possessing identical architectural features, was very likely to be that of the 1884 garrison church. The structure is identified as a “Chapel School” in maps of the barracks during the interwar period — a possible carry over from its use prior to St George’s being built. The use is consistent with that of buildings built to serve the religious needs of servicemen and their children in various other late 19th and early 20th century military barracks across the Commonwealth.

A view of the east end of the building with what is possibly the remodelled north side where the 1903 photograph could have been taken.

While St George’s continued in its use as a church following the late 1971 pull-out of British forces, the older church fell into disuse before becoming the Hebron Bible-Presbyterian Church’s chapel in 1979 until 1983 and then the New Life Baptist Church’s chapel from the late 1985 to 1993. It wasn’t until 2007 that the delightful old church saw life breathed into it again, when The White Rabbit took up tenancy. The restaurant opened the following year in 2008 and it hasn’t looked back since.

A view through the grilles of one of the lancet windows. The grille-work dates back to the building’s days as the Roman Catholic garrison church.

A westward view across the former parade grounds to The White Rabbit.

An eastward view across the former parade grounds to St George’s Church.

Another view of The White Rabbit.


A comparison of the building seen in a Tanglin Barracks photograph dated 1903 with The White Rabbit today. Several of the building’s external features such the position of the pair of lancet windows with respect to a gothic arched doorway at what would have been the altar of the church, the gothic arched windows next to it and the label moulds and label stops above the openings match quite perfectly. (Do note that the top image is flipped along the horizontal axis – one explanation for this is that the photograph is taken on the other side of the building which has since been remodelled. This would also explain the slight differences in the structural column).

 

An 1892 map showing a building on the site of the present day The White Rabbit (just west of the Parade Ground) that is thought to have been the same building.


 





Northern journeys: where Admiralty Road’s East meets West

22 07 2020

Thought of as “ulu” or remote, Sembawang is still a place where much of the past seems still to be around. It is for this reason that it is still one of the prettiest area of Singapore even if some of its beauty spots — such as the once beautifully wooded hill on which old Admiralty House is perched, have since yielded to the march of urbanisation.

I always enjoy a walk around the lesser developed parts of the area and a stroll along its still natural shoreline. Mornings are especially pleasant by the sea, when it can serve as a very nice backdrop for an especially dramatic sunrise. The area’s lush greenery, found not only in Sembawang Park, but also in the areas where the residences of the former naval base still stand, should also be celebrated — especially with the threat of redevelopment now looming over it.

Where Admiralty Road East and West meets – an area around which some of the oldest residences built for the former naval base can be found.

An area that has been spared from redevelopment is the stretch of Admiralty Road East and Admiralty Road West that runs between Canberra Road and Sembawang Road.  Much of the area has been today marked out either for future residential redevelopment or as a reserve site (see Master Plan 2019). The use of the area to serve existing military arrangements, as a port and the continued use of the former naval base dockyard by Sembawang Shipyard has seen that its flavour has been kept, although some of its old structures fronting the road were lost to a road widening exercise that took place at the end of the 1980s. The end of the lease that the shipyard holds on the what it calls Admiralty Yard is however, on the horizon. That will expire in 2028, although the yard does intend to move its operations to Tuas by 2024. Detailed planning for the area will likely take place to coincide with this move and until then, it would not be known what the future for a still green area will hold.

Among the earliest residences to be built for the naval base were these 1929 built dockyard chargemen’s residences along Wellington Road. Many of the area’s roads are named after cities in the Commonwealth.


More photographs:

 

A 2013 photograph showing the beautiful settings in which the old residences of the former naval base in Sembawang have been given.

 

A bridge built by Japanese Surrendered Personnel on the grounds of the former residence of the dockyard’s Commodore Superintendent.

 

The former vicarage of the Dockyard Church of St Peter. The old church, which fronted this along Admiralty Road East, was consecrated in the 1950s and was demolished in the late 1980s to allow the road to be widened.

 

Timber walled residences – built in the 1940s.

 

Canada Road.

 

Many of the residences built in the 1930s are of designs adapted from PWD plans.

 

Another view of a 1930s built residence.

 

Admiralty Road West – there used to be visible entrances to underground bunkers in the area opposite the dockyard entrance.

 


 





When Kallang counted among the world’s best airports

15 07 2020

Changi Airport today has the reputation of being one of the world’s foremost airports. It wasn’t however the first airport in Singapore to win that accolade. Singapore’s very first civil airport, Kallang Airport, was in fact thought of by no less a personality as Amelia Earhart as the “peer of any in the world” when she flew into it on 20 June 1937 — just eight days after it had opened.

The streamline-moderne terminal building of the former Kallang Airport.

Kallang Aerodrome plan showing with its circular landing area, with an aerial view of the site today. The circular outline of the former airfield can still be seen.

Just like Changi, the land for Kallang Airport grew out of an area of water — a huge “pestilential fever ridden swamp” and a “plague spot of squelching mud covered only at high water” in Kallang’s case. The site, where the Geylang, Kallang and Rochor rivers spilled out into the sea, was selected as it was close to the urban centre and, well placed to receive flying boats (aircraft with boat hulls to enable landing and take-off on water) — then the mainstay of luxury travel and the airmail service.

Work proper to reclaim the swamp commences in 1932 and was on completed in 1936. The reclamation involved some eight million tons of soil obtained from Paya Lebar and created some 137 ha of land much of which was a circular landing area to permit landing from all directions — a feature found in the modern aerodromes of the era. This circular outline is still in existence today. A flying boat ramp and slipway (which was more recently used as part of the since vacated Police Coast Guard repair facilities) was constructed to service the flying boat service. This is still in existence today. The jewel in the new aerodrome’s crown was perhaps its gorgeous streamline-moderne terminal building. Designed by PWD architect Frank Dorrington Ward, who also designed the old Supreme Court, the terminal resembles a bi-plane. Used by the People’s Association as its headquarters from 1960 until 2009, the building is now one of several structures belonging to the former airport that has been conserved.

A conserved hangar.

 

The first regular air services into Singapore

While Kallang may have been Singapore’s first civil airport, the first regular commercial flights actually operated out of RAF Seletar – when that was completed in 1930. That was operated by KNILM — Koninklijke Nederlandsch-Indische Luchtvaart Maatschappij or Royal Dutch East Indies Airway, which inaugurated a weekly Batavia-Palembang-Singapore service on 4 March of that year. Singapore would have to wait until 1933 before it saw the first London-bound flights. This was operated by KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) flying from Batavia with a Fokker F-XVIII. The outbound journey took seven days and inbound eight days. Imperial Airways — one of the parent companies of the present day British Airways also commenced regular services to and from London later in the same year. The one-way journey took about ten days.

Up on the roof of the former terminal during a #SLASecretSpaces guided visit (photo : Stanley Chee).

 

Kallang Airport’s runway

Originally equipped with an unpaved landing area — aircraft tended to be small and light in the early days of aviation, Kallang Airport was equipped with a paved landing strip during the Japanese Occupation (it was used as a fighter airfield by the Allies in the lead up to the Fall of Singapore). This went some way in preparing the airport to receive the postwar airliners and the first ever jetliner to land in Singapore — first on a strengthened version of the Japanese-laid runway and then in 1951 on an extended version of it (into what is today Old Airport Road).

The arrival of the jet-age

While Kallang may have heralded the arrival of the jet-age to Singapore with the landing of the BOAC De Havilland Comet on a test flight, its runway was however deemed inadequate and regular jetliner services, which we started in October 1952, used RAF Changi to land and take-off from — with arriving and departing passengers bussed to and from the terminal at Kallang Airport.  The use of jetliners reduced travel time to less that one-day, when it would have taken at about two days on the modern propeller powered aircraft of those days.

The control tower.

The BOAC Constellation crash

By the time of the arrival of the first regular Comets, a decision had been taken to build a new civil airport in Paya Lebar with work on it starting early in 1952 — a decision was taken none too soon as Kallang’s deficiencies were clearly exposed when on 13 March 1954, a BOAC Super Constellation hit a seawall on landing. The inquest into the crash, which killed 33, blamed the crash on pilot error. The inadequate ground support and response in both equipment and trained personnel was however, also cited as a reason for the high death toll.

A view of the terminal from the West Block.

Last flights

Kallang Airport would see its last regular flight on 21 August 1955 when Paya Lebar Airport opened. Its last plane – which had been undergoing repairs – would however, only be able to depart on 14 October. The closure of Kallang, allowed the construction of Nicoll Highway — a much needed arterial road into the city, which was completed the following year in 1956 (see: The treble-carriageway by the Promenade).

The terminal building as People’s Association HQ, 1960 to 2009.

 


The Main Hall

Although modestly proportioned by the standards of today, the terminal building’s Main Hall would have been its the main feature.

The Main Hall.

Occupying a double-volume space, it was designed to resemble the main hall of a railway station. In the space, offices for operating companies and a post office could be found with “accommodation for outgoing and incoming traffic”. There were also offices for immigration and customs, and medical services with a refreshment room and bar, and waiting rooms arranged. The main hall was naturally lit by a clerestory above the second level.

The main hall, seen from the second storey today.


Amelia Earhart on Singapore and Kallang Airport

Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic, landed at Kallang Aerodrome on the evening of 20 June 1937 – just eight days after it opened. The flight was part of an attempt by Ms Earhart to become the first aviatrix to circumnavigate the Earth. Ms Earhart was clearly impressed with Singapore and its new airport. In her diary entry, which she had sent back, she had this to say:

“Then Singapore. The vast city lies on an island, the broad expanses of its famous harbour filled, as I saw them from aloft that afternoon, with little water bugs, ships of all kinds from every port.

Below us, an aviation miracle of the East, lay the magnificent new airport, the peer of any in the world. As a reminder that this was indeed the East when I shut off the engines, music from a nearby Chinese theatre floated up to greet us. West is West, and East is certainly East. The barren margins of our isolated Western airports could scarcely assimilate such urban frivolities.

From the standpoint of military strategy, Singapore holds a predominant position in the Far East. Today, less than 100 years old, it is the tenth seaport city in the world. Yesterday it was a jungle, its mangrove swamps shared by savage Malay fishermen, tigers and pythons; today it is the crossroad of trade with Europe, Africa, India, Australia, China, and Japan. Tin and rubber are the mainstays of its export”.

Sadly, the Lockheed Electra with Ms Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared over the South Pacific on 2 July 1937 less than two weeks after her departure from Singapore early on 21 June 1937 for Bandung.


Flying Boats at Kallang

Flying Boats with their more voluminous airframes and ability to land anywhere where there was a sufficiently large and clear body of water, carried air mail and provided for luxurious air travel. A one-way journey from London to Singapore back then would have taken as long as ten days with multiple stops and cost in the region of SGD 22,000 in today’s money.

Short Empire off Kallang

A Short Empire Flying Boat taxiing on the water “runway” off Kallang for take off, c. 1941.

Besides services to Europe, there were also trans-Pacific flights. Pan Am introduced a fortnightly service from San Francisco to Singapore in 1941, with stops at Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam and Manila. A one-way ticket cost US$825 – the equivalent of just over SGD 20,000 in 2020 terms.

Pan Am Clipper off Kallang

A Pan Am Clipper flying boat off Kallang.

Commercial flying boat services to Kallang Airport ceased in 1949.


 





The lovely red-brick residences of northern Singapore

5 07 2020

Among the earliest permanent residences that the Admiralty’s contractor Sir John Jackson and Co put up in Sembawang as part of the construction of the naval base, are a lovely and quite unique collection of houses that are found in the vicinity of the dockyard.  Built from 1928 and completed in early 1929, three categories of these were built, the largest being those intended to house “superior” officers at Kings Avenue. There were also a number built to house subordinate officers at Canada Road, and a row at Wellington Road for chargemen.

The red-brick chargemen’s residences in the former naval base.

 

The same residences seen around the time of their completion in April 1929 (online at https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The set of houses are quite unique in character and unlike the commonly seen PWD type designs seen in the residences erected in the naval based in the 1930s and also across many housing estates built for both the government and the military from the late 1920s into the 1930s, have a design that is quite strongly influenced by the Arts-and-Crafts architectural movement. Among their distinct features are steeply pitched hip roofs and fair-faced brick finishes.

Another view of the naval base chargemen’s residences.

It is not presently known what the future holds for these houses, which are now in their 92nd year of existence. Based on the URA Master Plan, the houses lie in an area earmarked for future residential use that is subject to detailed planning.

Residences for subordinate officers, set in the lush green surroundings that are also a feature of the naval base and many other housing estates built for European government and military officers in Singapore.

 

Subordinate officers’ residences at their completion in April 1929 (online at https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

 

Superior officers’ residences at their completion in April 1929 (online at https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

 

A Superior Officers’ residence seen today.

 


Some other views 

Timber is used extensively in frames and floorboards …

… and also banisters.

Servants’ quarters and kitchens are arranged external to the houses.


 

 

 

 

 





Parting glances: the last of the 1G overhead bridges

26 05 2020

Singapore’s first pedestrian overhead bridge, a simple structure of steel tubing and timber plank decking, was installed over Collyer Quay in 1964. A dozen more with improved first generation structures were to be added between 1965 and 1967, including one at 3 ms Serangoon Road – by its junction with St Michael’s Road that was long, like the nearby National Aerated Water bottling plant, a familiar sight.

The newly installed bridge at Serangoon 3 ms in 1967.

These first generation bridges were quite a familiar sight in my childhood and one of the things I have associated them, were beggars – another familiar childhood sight. Over the years, these simple structures were improved and strengthened where possible. Many were replaced as wider roads meant increased bridge spans for which the use of reinforced concrete structures made better sense. One of the last of these bridges – over Bukit Timah Road was damaged by a vehicle mounted crane in 2010 and dismantled, leaving the bridge along Serangoon Road as the last of a kind, until that is, its removal in June 2019.


The bridge in more recent times


Removal of the bridge in June 2019


 





Parting glances: the Siglap flats

25 05 2020

A final look at the set of four Housing and Development Board (HDB) built blocks of flats that have long been a curious sight at the junction of Upper East Coast Road and Siglap Road. Each five-storeys tall, the blocks were completed in early 1964 to rehouse families  displaced by a fire that had destroyed wooden dwellings on the same site during Chinese New Year in February 1962. More than 450 people from 82 families were rendered homeless by the fire. The four blocks, which contained some 119 units and 10 shop units when built, will be demolished under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) and were vacated some time in 2015.


How the blocks looked originally


 





The Stallwood houses

24 03 2020

In Singapore, Herbert Athill Stallwood is probably better known for his effort in documenting the Old Christian Cemetery on Fort Canning Hill. What perhaps is not as well known is the legacy that he has left Singapore in his capacity as the Government Architect. It the set of plans that he drew up during this time that a large proportion of Singapore’s so-called “Black and White Houses” were built to.

The first of the Stallwood designed houses are seen at Malcolm Park, built in 1925.

Stallwood, who arrived in Singapore in October 1906 and was appointed as a draughtsman in the Public Works Department (PWD) in November 1906, would take on the position of Architectural Assistant following his qualification as an architect in 1912. In 1920, Stallwood was appointed as Government Architect. Among Stallwood’s assistants was Frank Dorrington Ward, whose is perhaps the better known PWD architect whose later works included the old Supreme Court and Kallang Airport. It was during Stallwood’s time as Government Architect that the plans for what would become the PWD’s Government Class III Quarters were derived from.

These houses, which tended to be built into sloping terrain, featured concrete piers supporting timber upper structures in which the living spaces were arranged. They were provided with spacious verandahs, high ceilings and lots of ventilation openings to maximise airflow and light.  The residences are seen replicated in some form across many estates built to house senior government, military and municipal officers from the second half of the 1920s onwards.


More photographs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Death of The President

23 03 2020

A look back at Serangoon Plaza, which was built as President Shopping Centre at the end of the 1960s. Developed by South Union Co Ltd, the President began operations in 1970 – a hotel, which became President Merlin Hotel, New Park Hotel and more recently Park Royal on Kitchener, was part of the development.

A 1970 advertisement for The President in Tengah Times (posted by Terence Bettesworth on On a Little Street in Singapore in 2013).

At its opening, the shopping centre featured President Emporium (and supermarket) on its ground floor, and shops on its upper floors. Some would also remember it for the Singing Palace – which featured acts by comic duo Wang Sa and Ye Fong. It was most recently connected with Mustafa, whose connection with it went back to 1985. It closed in February 2017 and was demolished for Centrium Square, which is currently under construction.

 


Final days, Jan 2017





The Government Housing gems at Seton Close

22 03 2020

Found around the fringes of the Municipality of Singapore are several government housing gems such as several that were built using blueprints developed by the Public Works Department (PWD) in the 1910s. These, which include four Class III houses at Seton Close that were beautifully renovated for modern living in 2018, can be thought of as being among the PWD’s first purpose built designs.

A Seton Close residence.

The four at Seton Close, belonged to a larger set of six put up to house senior government officers in 1922. These are again, quite different from what could be thought of as an actual black and white house and feature a fair amount of masonry and have a main framework of concrete (as opposed to timber) columns and beams. Some of the upper level framework on the balcony projections and verandah (and of course roof supports) were however of timber. Much of these wooden structures would have been coated in black tar-based coatings, and would have (as they do to some extent now) featured a fair bit of black “trim”.

The since enclosed upper verandah.

Designed with a porte-cochère, with a (since enclosed) verandah space above that would have served as a lounge in the evenings, the houses had their reception and dining spaces below. The well-ventilated bedrooms on the second level also opened to balconies, which have also since been enclosed.

A bedroom.


More photographs


 





The houses that the SIT’s architects built – for themselves!

21 03 2020

Built for Singapore’s colonial administrators by the municipal commission, government and military, several hundred residences set in lush surroundings, stand today. Widely referred to as “black and white” houses, the bulk of these residences actually exhibit a range of styles that are not quite as black and white as the commonly used description would suggest and include some with more modern styles such as a set of residences built at Kay Siang Road for senior officers of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Designed by the SIT’s own team of architects and built from the 1940s to the 1950s, the houses – like the majority of the colonial homes that were built are not technically of the black and white style.

 

One of the “air-conditioned” SIT designed houses. These were built for the SIT’s most senior officers.

One thing that marks these modern residences in Kay Siang Road are their low ceilings –  a departure from the high ceilings of the typical colonial home. This feature was for the simple reason that the houses had been designed for air-conditioning, which was much more of a luxury back then than it is today. For the same reason, the houses lack. the verandahs, generous ventilation openings, and the airiness that came with them.

A close-up of the house.

The SIT, which was set up in 1927, took on the role of building public housing and urban planning until it was replaced by the Housing and Development Board in 1960. Among the estates that it housed its European staff at was at Adam Park and Kay Siang Road, the latter being where the SIT’s senior staff were put up. The colonial estate at Kay Siang Road was developed in the 1920s and was located north of Wee Kay Siang’s estate after which the road is named. The early homes at the estate were of the Public Works Department style and it was only later that the SIT’s architects added a flavour of their own to the area.


Inside the house






The comfort station at Bukit Timah Fork

4 03 2020

Many of us would have encountered these houses along Jalan Jurong Kechil shown in the photographs below, without realising their dark past as comfort houses or stations. The operation of comfort stations was one of many unforgivable acts committed by the occupiers of Malaya and Singapore and for the matter, much of East Asia during second world war. The identification of these shophouses as a comfort station, was made in the 1990s by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, based on an Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) document. The document, which provided details of a “relaxation house” at “Bukit Timah Fork”, also provided details of how different units were allocated visiting times on different days, with officers allowed to visit in the evenings until 9 pm and those in the ranks the period between noon and 5.30 pm. Officers were also charged a higher rate.

These houses were identified by Asahi Shimbun as a Comfort Station, based on an IJA document.

Former comfort woman from Korea, have been involved in a long battle with Japan over the issue. Although Japan has acknowledged its role coercing women during the war to work as comfort women, this falls short of the apology and compensation that many demand. Many of the comfort women sent to Singapore were known to have been of Korean origin. One of the sites at which these Korean women received medical treatment – for sexually transmitted infections – one of the stories told during the recently concluded Battle for Singapore tours to the former CDC, was in Tan Tock Seng’s former Mandalay Road TB wards. This is just across Martaban Road from the former infectious diseases hospital.

 





The public bathing pagar at Katong Park

14 01 2020

Katong Park is where a last bastion of a 1870s coastal defence fort, built quite foolishly on sand, can be found. Once fronting the sea, the former defensive position turned recreational space, was also where a bathing pagar – the first to be established by the Municipal Commission for public bathing – was to be found.

Children at the bathing pagar at Katong Park, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

The construction of the pagar – an enclosure extending from the sea shore originally made of wooden stakes – came on the back of the commission’s thrust to provide public facilities for sporting pursuits (see: A short history of public Swimming Pools in Singapore and Parting Glances: the boxing gym at Farrer Park) in the 1920s and 1930s. The original public pagar at Katong was opened by Mr William Bartley in December 1931 – in the same year that Singapore’s first public swimming pool, built using the disused service reservoir at Mount Emily, also opened.

Another view of the pagar in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Private bathing pagars were especially common then. They were constructed primarily to keep bathers safe and keep the sharks outs and were found at seaside homes and hotels, and at private swimming clubs. A shark attack in 1925, which resulted in the death of an unfortunate bather, Ms Doris Bowyer-Smyth, prompted the Singapore Swimming Club to erect its pagar soon after.

A bathing pagar seen in the sea in front of Beaulieu House, which had been a private seaside residence before it was acquired for the construction of the Naval Base in the 1920s (photo: National Archives of Singapore).

The Chinese Swimming Club’s Bathing Pagar.

The Katong Park pagar,  which was concretised in the 1950s, stood until work on reclamation started in 1971. All that now remains to remind us of the seaside – the reason for Katong Park’s coming into being in 1928, is the last bastion of Fort Tanjong Katong.


Fort Tanjong Katong

Among the first set of instructions given by Raffles to Farquhar upon the establishment of Singapore as an East India Company trading post was to have a defensive position in the Tanjong Katong area – at Sandy Point or Tanjong Rhu. The thought of a fort was in fact broached from time to time in reviews conducted of Singapore defences, but it wasn’t until 1878 that a coastal battery at Tanjong Katong would be established with a strengthening of coastal defences in the face of a possible Russian threat.

The sandy base meant that the fort’s high range finding tower moved with each firing, not only requiring a recalibration of the range finders with each firing but also made them impossible to use when the tower shook. The fort, built at sea level, also acquired a reputation for being a “wash-out fort” and was decommission in the early 1900. The fort’s southeast bastion, which were uncovered several times following the conversion of the grounds of the fort into Katong Park were once again uncovered in 2004 and can now be found at a corner of Katong Park.

Fort Tanjong Katong Source: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

 

Fort Tanjong Katong’s southeast bastion.

 

Another view of Fort Tanjong Katong’s southeast bastion.

 

The area where the sea – and the pagar was.


 





When the region’s naval ships were being built at Tanjong Rhu

11 01 2020

Tanjong Rhu – the cape of casuarina trees and once known as “Sandy Point“, has had a long association with the boatbuilding and repair trade. Captain William Flint, Raffles’ brother-in-law as Singapore’s first Master Attendant, established a marine yard there as far back as 1822, for the “convenience of the building and repair of boats and vessels”.  That association would come to an end when the last shipyards relocated in the early 1990s, not so long after one of the larger establishments Vosper Pte. Ltd. Singapore, went into voluntary liquidation in 1986.

High and dry. A Point class U.S. Coast Guard WPB (left) used in Vietnam by the U.S. Navy, being repaired at Vosper Thornycroft. A Royal Malaysian Navy Keris class patrol boat is seen on the right (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

With links to Vosper Thornycroft (VT) – an established name in naval shipbuilding, Vosper Singapore was a major player in the domestic and regional naval market. It also had a long association with Tanjong Rhu that began with John I. Thornycroft and Company setting up its Singapore shipyard there late in 1926. Among Thornycroft’s successes were the construction of motor launches in 1937 for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, a series that included the very first Panglima, a name that would acquire great meaning with the naval forces of a sovereign Singapore some three decades later.

A 1927 ad for Thornycroft Shipyards at Tanjong Rhu.

Thornycroft morphed into Vosper Thornycroft (VT) in 1967, following a merger the previous year, of Vosper Limited with Thornycroft’s parent company in Britain. VT would also merge with neighbouring United Engineers here, another long-time shipbuilder based at Tanjong Rhu, the same year. The expanded VT would find great success, especially in the regional naval market, obtaining contracts from the Ceylonese Navy, the Bangladeshi Government, and the Royal Brunei Navy – for which it built three Waspada class Fast Attack Craft.

A view towards a bakau laden Bugis pinisi on the Geylang River from Vosper Thornycroft (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

Locally, VT also supplied and serviced the Royal Malaysian Navy, as well as the fledging Singapore navy. A contract for six ‘A’ and ‘B’ Class 110 foot Patrol Boats with Singapore’s then Maritime Command in 1968 involved the lead vessel being constructed in the parent company’s yard in Portsmouth. This arrangement set the tone for how large naval procurement would be conducted here, although VT would play little part in the subsequent naval construction for what became the Republic of Singapore Navy, in the years that would follow.

The launch of the ‘A’ Class 110′ Patrol Craft at VT for the Maritime Command in 1969. Interestingly, the main deck of these steel hulled vessels were constructed from aluminium alloy (photo source: National Archives of Singapore).

The yard was also involved in commercial ship construction and repair, and naval repair and upgrading work. The U.S. Navy, which was involved in the conflict in Vietnam, sent several small patrol boats to the yard during this time. One of these boats was brought over from Danang by a Kim Hocker late in the fall of 1969. An officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, Kim was seconded to the US Navy. An extended stay in Singapore permitted Kim to put his camera to good use and his captures included bits of Raffles Place, the Meyer Road and Katong Park area close to where he was putting up, and also ones of the shipyard that are used in this post. One thing that is glaringly clear in Kim’s photographs of the yard is the absence of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as hard hats, safety shoes and safety belts – a requirement in the shipyards of today.

Kim Hocker with the author.

No hard hats or safety shoes! (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

VT Singapore became Vosper Pte. Ltd. Singapore in 1977 following the nationalisation of its parent company. Despite contracts from Oman and Kuwait, and an investment in a Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) production facility that was partly motivated by a Marine Police Patrol Boat contract,  the next decade would see Vosper Singapore fall on hard times. This saw to its eventual demise as a yard here in 1986.  The closure of the yard came a a time when plans for the redevelopment of the Tanjong Rhu for residential use were being set in motion. The shipyard site was purchased by Lum Chang Holdings the following year for the purpose, and was in turn resold to the Straits Steamship Company (now Keppel Land). Together with DBS Land, the site, an adjoining site as well as land that was reclaimed, were redeveloped into the Pebble Bay condominium complex in the 1990s.

A view towards what would become the Golden Mile area from Vosper. The naval vessel seen here looks like one of the Keris class Royal Malaysian Navy Patrol Boat (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

At the time of Vosper’s demise, there were also several shipyards that were still in operation, including privately held ones such as Kwong Soon Engineering and another long time Tanjong Rhu shipyard, Singapore Slipway. Located at the end of the cape since the end of the 1800s, it was by that time owned by Keppel and would come to be part of (Keppel) Singmarine. The last yards moved out in the early 1990s allowing Tanjong Rhu’s redevelopment into what was touted a waterfront residential district, which incidentally, was where the first million dollar condominium units were sold.

More on Tanjong Rhu and its past can be found at “The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay“.


More photographs taken at Vosper Thornycroft from the Kim Hocker Collection:

Painting the old fashioned way (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

One more … (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

The security guard or jaga … wearing a Vosper uniform (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

It was common to see pushcart stalls outside the gates of shipyards and factories in those days (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

A store? (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

Shipyard workers – again no hard hats (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

Welders at work (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).