Jurong will never be Jurong again

31 08 2022

It is sad to think that Jurong will soon be without Jurong Bird Park. The attraction, which brought many into the heart of what might have been an unattractive industrial estate if not for its presence, will welcome its last guests on 3 January 2023 — exactly 52 years after its 1971 opening. Its closure is in anticipation of its move to Mandai, where it reopen as Bird Paradise as part of the larger Mandai Wildlife Reserve. When the bird park does close, Jurong will certainly be a poorer place without it. What will become of the lush green space that the bird park occupies, one that has taken half a century to grow, is not known. I would certainly love to see that it is retained as a green oasis in the midst of the industrial sprawl that surrounds it. It will be quite a shame if we were to also lose it once after the bird park closes.

The old and very industrial looking entrance to the bird park. The park would have been in operation for 52 years when it closes its doors for the last time on 3 Jan 2023.
(Photo: Mandai Wildlife Reserve).

For those like me who grew up with the bird park, Jurong will not be Jurong without it. Developed as part of the effort to provide the then newly minted industrial town a greener and softer face and a space to also live and play in — some 12% of the Jurong’s land area was set aside for parks and gardens, the bird park and the plan to make Jurong a “garden industrial town”, was the brainchild of Dr Goh Keng Swee. A trip that Dr Goh made to Rio de Janeiro for a World Bank meeting as Finance Minister in 1968, during which he visited the city’s zoo, provided the inspiration for the bird park. The zoo’s aviary caught Dr Goh’s eye and he hit on the idea of the bird park. When asked why not build a zoo instead, Dr Goh reportedly quipped, “birdseeds cost less than meat”.

Among the bird park’s visitors in its early days was HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1972.
(Photo: Ministry of Information and Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

Like Jurong Industrial Estate, the new bird park’s host, the bird park was a huge success story. Given the “wow” factor through what was at 100 feet high, the world’s tallest man-made waterfall, which was set in the world’s largest walk-in aviary, the bird park captured the imagination of many of us in Singapore in the early years of nationhood and very quickly became a favourite destination for many. In a matter of less than twenty months of its opening, the bird park welcomed its one-millionth visitor in August 1972. It was especially popular as a destination for school excursions, as learning journeys were then known as. Besides the many family outings to the bird park, I also remember numerous long and usually uneventful journeys to it on the school bus. Getting that whiff of cocoa in the air, as the bus carried us down the grand avenue-like Jalan Boon Lay and past the Van Houten chocolate factory, was always something to look forward to. That meant always increased that sense of anticipation as it meant that the bird park was close by.

Once the pride and joy of Singapore. At 100 feet or 30 metres in height, Jurong Bird Park’s waterfall was once the tallest man-made waterfall in the world. See it for the last time before it closes its doors for good at the end of 3 January 2023.

To celebrate its legacy ahead of its closure, Jurong Bird Park is inviting all of us in Singapore to embark on A Flight To Remember. The four-month long last hurrah of sorts for the park, being held from 3 September 2022 till 3 January 2023, will see a series of activities held at the bird park. During this time, visitors will be able to recall some of the park’s more memorable moments as well as their past experiences through a self-guided heritage trail, mock-ups of the park’s features over the years such as its one-time cuckoo clock tower and the panorail (which operated from 1992 to 2012), and, a memory wall at the Penguin Coast to which visitors can add their own memories of the park. An opportunity will also be provided for visitors to see Jurong Bird Park through the eyes of its dedicated team of staff through a staff-curated Insider’s Guide.

The iconic cuckoo clock tower that once graced the park’s entrance.
(Photo: Mandai Wildlife Reserve)

Come November 2022, visitors will also be able to join the bird park’s Nostalgic Signature Tour, which will be conducted by seasoned guides and will delve into the park’s much storied past. Bookings can be made for this tour from 19 October 2022. Adding to the sense of nostalgia, the bird park will launch a nostalgic dining experience in November, when traditional pushcarts offering local hawker fare make an appearance. More information on A Flight to Remember can be found on the Jurong Bird Park’s website.

A mock-up of the cuckoo clock for A Flight to Remember with a count down timer.

Jurong Bird Park, opens from 8.30 am to 6 pm (last entry is at 5.00pm) from Thursdays to Sundays, and on the eve of public holidays, on public holidays, and during selected school holidays.

A mock-up of the 1992 panorail at which visitors can take photographs.

“Old Birds” of Jurong Bird Park



A tour of Jurong Bird Park on 30 August 2022






Forbidden Hill spiced and demystified

27 08 2022

Fort Canning Hill, aka Bukit Larangan or Forbidden Hill, the place of many a schoolboy adventure for me, has always been a place of discovery and rediscovery for me, as well as a space that provides an escape from the urban world. An abode of the ancient kings of Singapura — the spirits of whom are said to still roam the hill, the hill is one steeped as much in history, as it is surrounded by mystery.

Fort Canning Hill, the Forbidden Hill is a place that has long been cloaked with an air of mystery.

The mystery of the place, was quite evident when the British first established their presence in Singapore in 1819. Col William Farquhar’s attempt to ascend the strategically positioned elevation, which commanded a view of the plain across which the settlement and Singapore River, was met with resistance by the followers of Temenggong Abdul Rahman who claimed that the sounds of gongs and drums and the shouts of hundreds of men could be heard, even if all that was present then on the hill were only the reminders of a long lost 14th century kingdom. The claim did not deter Farquhar from making his ascent, nor his colleagues in the East India Company, who would exploit the hill to place the seat of colonial rule in Singapore, as an experimental botanical garden, for the first Christian spaces for the dead, and as an artillery fort and barracks, for fresh water supply to the fast developing municipality and as a strategic military command bunker.

It has long been a place of escape for me.

Much of that history, and mystery, is now wonderfully captured in the new Fort Canning Heritage Gallery — and in a book “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens” that was launched in conjunction with the gallery’s opening yesterday on 26 August 2022. The gallery is housed in a 1920s barrack block now known as Fort Canning Centre, that has seen use most recently as a staging point for the Bicentennial Experience and as the short-lived private museum, Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris. The centre, which also housed the “world’s largest squash centre” from the 1977 to 1987 during the height of the squash rackets craze in Singapore, sits quite grandly atop the slope we know today as Fort Canning Green and forms a magnificent backdrop to the many events that the former cemetery grounds now plays host to.

Fort Canning Centre, a 1920s barrack block in which the newly opened Fort Canning Heritage Gallery is housed.

Divided into five zones, the gallery provides an introduction to the hill, and through four themed zones, places focus on a particular aspect of the role that the hill has played through its own and also more broadly, Singapore’s history. The stories, told succinctly through information panels, archaeological artefacts excavated from the hill and interactive digital stations, provide just enough information to the visitor to provide an appreciation of the hill history and its heritage. There is also a condensed version of the “From Singapore to Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience” video that plays in a mini-theatrette within the gallery.

Minister of National Development, Mr Desmond Lee, opening the new Fort Canning Heritage Gallery.

Also opened with the new gallery was an enhanced Spice Garden, which now extends to the 2019 pedestrianised section of Fort Canning Rise and a pedestrian ramp and underpass (that once led to the former car park at the rear of the old National Library). The pedestrian ramp and underpass now features the new Spice Gallery, which I thought was a wonderful and meaningful way to use a space that serves little other practical use today. The Spice Gallery, made possible by the generous support of Nomanbhoy and Sons Pte Ltd — a spice trader with over a hundred years of history, provides an appreciation of the significance of the spice trade to modern Singapore’s early development as a trading hub and also the role that Fort Canning Hill played in Singapore’s early spice plantations.

The newly opened Spice Gallery at the enhanced Spice Garden occupies a former pedestrian ramp and underpass.

A book, “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens”, authored by Dr Chng Mun Whye and Ms Sara-Ann Ang, which highlights the park’s rich heritage, was also launched together with the opening. This is available for sale Gardens Shop at various locations around the Singapore Botanic Gardens or online at https://botanicgardensshop.sg at SGD 29.90.

A book, “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens” was launched together with the opening.

Along with the permanent exhibition two galleries, there is also a “Kaleidoscope in Clay (I)” exhibition that features exhibits showcasing 5,000 years of Chinese ceramic history from 26 August to 11 September 2022 at The Gallery@L3, Fort Canning Centre. Also running is the 3rd edition of Festival at the Fort being held in conjunction with the opening and Singapore Night Festival, the programmes of which include movie screenings at Fort Canning Green, guided tours and children’s activities. The festival runs from 26 August to 4 September 2022 and more information can be found at https://www.nparks.gov.sg/activities/events-and-workshops/2022/8/festival-at-the-fort-2022.

Kaleidoscope in Clay (I) at Gallery@L3, Fort Canning Centre.

Fort Canning Heritage Gallery is opened daily from 10 am to 6 pm (expect for the last Monday of each month), while the Spice Gallery is opened from 7 am to 7 pm daily. Entry to both galleries is free to the public.


Photographs of Fort Canning Heritage Gallery during the opening on 26 August 2022.


Fort Canning Centre, various views


Fort Canning Spice Gallery / enhanced Spice Garden






The beautiful Portuguese Church in a new light

22 08 2022

There’s no better time to have a look at the newly restored St Joseph Church than during the Singapore Night Festival. Beautifully illuminated for the festival, the church, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful churches in Singapore, is quite a sight to behold. What is especially wonderful during the night festival is that the church has been opened to the public for heritage tours and performances featuring the beautiful voice of Corrinne May and also the church’s Sacred Heart Choir.

To appreciate the beauty of the wonderfully restored interior of the church, it is also best to make a daytime visit on a sunny afternoon. That is when the church’s beautiful set of stained glass is best appreciated. The church, which closed for extensive repairs and renovation in August 2017, was reopened in time to celebrate its 110th anniversary. The second church to stand on the site, the current building was consecrated by the Bishop of Macau, Dom João Paulino Azevedo e Castro on the 30th of June 1912.

Established by the Portuguese Mission, the church catered to the Portuguese and Portuguese Eurasian community and continues to the the spiritual home of the Portuguese Eurasian community. The Portuguese Mission’s presence in Singapore can be traced back to 1825 and followed the arrival of Jose D’Almeida to Singapore on a permanent basis. Mass was initially held at Dr D’Almeida’s Beach Road house before a chapel was set up on Bras Basah Road in 1933. The mission then built a church on the current site in the 1850s. The church was for much of its history, administered by the Portuguese Diocese of Macau (and the Diocese of Goa before that). It was only in 1981, that it came under the Archdiocese of Singapore. The Bishop of Macau however, continued to appoint priests to the church until 1999.

Other posts related to St Joseph’s Church:

A one hundred year old beauty (about the church)

A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House (about Parochial House, which is still being renovated)

Giving the Sacred Heart a right heart (about the restoration of the church’s stained glass in 2014)

Good Friday at the Portuguese Church (about the annual Good Friday procession)





Erasing the countryside

11 08 2022

The winds of change that are blowing through the area around the area of Bah Soon Pah Road seem to be gathering pace. Long an area in which the march of urbanisation was resisted, it has started to take on the appearance of a site being prepared for the inevitable spread of public housing in Singapore’s relentless quest to overpopulate and overbuild an already overcrowded and overly concretised island nation.

The former Bukit Sembawang assistant plantation manager’s residence near the entrance to Bah Soon Pah Road in 2021.

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to have known the area in its previous form. Located off a section of Sembawang Road that I first set eyes on in the early 1970s, it was set for much of the time that I knew it across a green and rolling landscape that in spite of several changes over the course of half a century, has long had that feel of the countryside. Seeing it The many drives that I was taken on and have myself taken over the years brought great joy to me, as did the escapes that I found in the space whenever I took a long walk through it.

A recent view from Lorong Chencharu towards the bungalow, with clearance work in the foreground.

As frequent and necessary as change may be in Singapore, it is hard to grow accustomed to it. When change does come, it can often be swift and cruel. Not only does change erase that sense of familiarity one has with a space in the blink of an eye, it can break a bond that one may have developed with the space over a course of several decades. This seems to also be the case with the Bah Soon Pah Road area in the sense of the rather abrupt manner that change is taking place as it is being readied for its next chapter as a residential area.

Bah Soon Pah Road no more, August 2022.

Named after the illustrious Lim Nee Soon and originally constructed to serve as a access road to a government holiday bungalow, there have been several iterations in Bah Soon Pah Road’s transformation over the years. Besides being closely associated with the Bukit Sembawang estate by virtue of the prominent placed bungalow that served as its assistant plantation manager’s residence, the area also played host to Malaysian military establishments, a field experimental station, rubber plantations and more recently, farms and plant nurseries.

Nurseries along Bah Soon Pah Road, August 2021.

The spread of what will presumably be an extension to Yishun town, extends to the area now occupied by Orto leisure park and Kampung Kampus and several tropical fish farms in the area south of Bah Soon Pah Road by Lorong Chencharu. Based on a Straits Times report published on 7 August 2022, both Orto and Kampung Kampus will have until June 2023 to operate at their current premises. Judging from reactions amongst members of the public to the news, it seems quite clear that spaces such as these are of great value to many. They provide a much needed and location friendly alternative to the cramped, confined, very concrete and rather infuriating leisure and recreational spaces found in malls and integrated complexes in which one can’t seem to escape from the madness that Singapore has become.

Kampung Kampus at Lorong Chencharu, which will closed by June 2023.
Orto is not only a welcome place of escape, the sight commuters on the MRT line from and to Khatib MRT Station catch of it, breaks the monotony of the journey.

Another change that is already altering the face of the area is the construction of the North-South Corridor, a new expressway that will carry traffic from Singapore’s north to the city centre, the northern part of which will be carried on a viaduct up to the Marymount area after which it will run underground. The widening of roads over which the viaduct will run is already being taking place. This is in order to divert traffic onto whilst the viaduct is being built. Preparations for this are well underway along the stretch of Sembawang Road by Bah Soon Pah Road, where the viaduct will run over before it turns toward Lentor Avenue and before long, a road that I knew for half a century will be quite unrecognisable.

A harbinger of change: hoardings being erected along Sembawang Road in November 2021 in preparation for the widening of the road to allow the North South Corridor viaduct to be built.

One consolation is all of this is that the area to Sembawang Road’s west, the site of Sembawang Air Base, will remain relatively uncluttered. Interestingly, evidence of the air base’s links with the Admiralty, having been develop to serve the fleet air arm, can be found in a few Admiralty land boundary markers placed along Sembawang Road. Hopefully these will survive the construction of the viaduct along Sembawang Road and remain in situ to at least tell the story. The story is part of a greater and more important story of the huge naval base that provided employment and made a significant contribution to the pre-Independence Singapore economy that to this very day has left a mark on the Sembawang area.

An Admiralty land boundary marker.

Lorong Chencharu

URA Master Plan 2019 identifies the area as a future residential site subject to detailed planning.

Views around Bah Soon Pah Road, mostly from August 2021:


Views around Lorong Chencharu, Orto, Kampung Kampus and Sembawang Road, in August 2022:






Parting Glances: Farrer Park Swimming Complex

10 08 2022

The rapid pace of change in Singapore’s robs many of places dear to them. These places, ones Singaporeans may have grown up with and made memories in, provides a connection to the country in a way that can never be replaced, and is what anchors people to a place and to a large extent is what makes home, home.

Farrer Park Swimming Complex

One place where memories for many in my generation were made, was Farrer Park, at which the last laps were swum at its 65-year-old swimming pool yesterday on 9 August 2022. From attending school sporting meets, to catching childhood football heroes “in action” and watching sports on a Sunday afternoon for free, Farrer Park seemed the go-to place for anything connected with sports. Its small (by the standards of today) swimming complex was also a popular spot to spend an especially warm day, being a lot more accessible than Singapore’s first public pool up on Mount Emily.

A swimming pool that played a big part in establishing the foundation on which the swimming career of Ang Peng Siong, once the “world’s fastest swimmer”.

Like Mount Emily, Farrer Park Swimming Pool was showing the signs of its age by the time I got to use it. Nevertheless, it was one of my favourites. It had that homely feel that seemed missing from the newer public swimming complexes, such as the one at Toa Payoh at which I would learn to swim.

Designed by City Architect, M E Crocker, Farrer Park’s swimming pool was built as Singapore’s third public pool (see: A Short History of Public Swimming Pools in Singapore) at the cost of $460,000. Officially opened on 22 February 1957 by the then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, it drew a huge crowd following day —  when it was opened to the public. A thousand pool users were reported to have used the pool that first day alone, with queues forming some two hours before its 7.30 am opening time.

A last look at Farrer Park Swimming Pool

Farrer Park would go on to become the “grounds” on which a one-time “world’s fastest swimmer”, Ang Peng Siong, was groomed. It was at the pool that Ang’s father, a supervisor at the pool, taught him to swim and provided him with his early training. In 1982, Ang became the “world’s fastest swimmer” when he recorded the world’s fastest time in the 50 metres freestyle. Ang would return to Farrer Park following its closure as a public pool in 2003, when the APS Swimming School which Ang founded in 1995, moved in 2004. The school has used the swimming complex since then until its closure this August.

The sun goes down on Farrer Park Swimming Pool

While a proposal was made to retain the swimming complex and refurbish it for future use in an area on which some 1,600 flats will be added, an announcement was made earlier this year that it would not be feasible to do so. The pool is now set to be demolished … to be replaced by a modern new-age integrated sporting complex in which new swimming facilities would be added, breaking yet another link that Farrer Park has to Singapore’s sporting history.


Parting glances: Farrer Park Swimming Complex






The former Police Coast Guard HQ at Kallang

5 08 2022

Seemingly uninteresting and rather unexciting, the cluster of buildings that were used by the Police Coast Guard (PCG) to house their headquarters from 1970 to 2006, now hide an interesting secret. Repurposed as the National Youth Sports Institute (NYSI), the buildings have not only found a new life, but have been repurposed with a minimum of intervention and have retained much of the fabric of its past.

NYSI at Kallang, occupies a space that was used as a flying boat reception and maintenance facility and later by the PCG as its headquarters.

The former base, which was carved out of the former Kallang Airport’s flying boat reception and maintenance facilities (its ramp/slipway is still there, except it is part of the National Cadet Corp (Sea) facility next to NYSI), was turned into a base for what was then the Marine Police in 1970 at the cost of S$1 million. Having been based at the congested Singapore River by what is now the Asian Civilisations Museum, a new base with a maintenance facility was much needed to permit enable a swifter repair turnaround time for its boats, improve response and also accommodate the Marine Police’s expanding fleet.

A piece from its days as the flying boat facility.

Amongst the structures that were put up during the development of the Kallang Marine Poilce HQ, was a two storey building that served as its nerve centre, which is the same building that NYSI has operated out of since November 2015. The building and an annex, which once housed offices, interrogation rooms, an armoury and even a lock-up, is now home to gyms, sports laboratories, accommodation, recovery rooms counselling rooms, and even chill out spaces. While that may have been expected, what is unexpected is the manner in which the building has been redone in a way that not only allows it to keep many of its reminders of its days as a Marine Police base, but also with little need for light and ventilation other than that which occurs naturally. This rather intelligent, sustainable, no-frills and rather affordable approach is a breath of fresh air and should really be a model for many of our developments in which old spaces and building are repurposed. Most projects, quite unfortunately, have gone down the path of being flamboyant and gimmicky.

Decently exposed.

The Marine Police, morphed into the Police Coast Guard in 1993 and vacated the base in 2006 due to the intended closing up of Marina Bay through the construction of the Marina Barrage. It is now based in Pulau Brani.


A walk around NYSI Kallang

Chin-up bars – a reminder of the past.
Inside the old electrical distribution box.
The former arms clearing station.
Recalling the armoury.
Exposing the dividing line between the main building and an annex.
A breath of fresh air, the non-air-conditioned gym.
Notice the manhole in the gym flooring (previously a wet space).
A performance lab.
Heaters to simulate hot dry conditions.
An “Endless Pool” for swimmers.
Another reminder of the past.
Maximising natural ventilation.
Dorms – a curtain separates the male and female sections.

Common spaces


The former lock-up


Other views around the facility






A house on which Singapore’s modern port was built

12 07 2022

There is little doubt that Singapore’s port has been a key driver of its success. The roots of the port as we know of it today were really laid by commercial dock companies established in the mid-1800s, chief amongst which were the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company and the Patent Slip and Dock Company (later the New Harbour Dock Company). Their possession of wharfage originally put up to support repair and resupply activities in the decade that preceded the opening of the Suez Canal, placed Singapore in an excellent position to meet the growth in shipping that followed and the advances in ship technology that had already been taking place.

Singapore Harbour Board Map, c. 1920s, showing location of Keppel House

Through consolidation, a duopoly was formed between the two dock companies before collaboration, first through a somewhat monopolistic joint-purse arrangement and eventually, through a merger saw to the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company emerging as a single big player in the provision of port and ship repair services in the final years of the nineteenth century. A direct result of this was the Straits Settlements government expropriation of the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company and the formation of Tanjong Pagar Dock Board . As a state-controlled body run with the interests of Singapore in mind, the board which morphed into the Singapore Harbour Board (SHB) and from 1964, the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), was able to develop the port in a structured manner that was necessary to meet the challenges that were to follow.

Stairway to place of much mystery, 11 Keppel Hill was built to house a manager of the New Harbour Dock Company and is thought to have been completed around 1899. The house, which has invited much interest, has more than a tale or two to tell.

Today, all that seems left to tell the story of the port’s origins are a handful of historical assets and former graving docks that now enhance residential developments around Keppel Bay as water features. Among the artefacts are those that came into the possession of Mapletree during the corporatisation of PSA. These include a steam crane that can now be found outside the revamped and somewhat unfriendly former St James’ Power Station, now the Singapore headquarters of Dyson. What could be thought of as another piece in the jigsaw would the former residence of the Chairman of SHB. This sits somewhat forlornly in isolation, in a quiet corner on the southern slope of Mount Faber. What I find especially interesting about the mansion is that it stands to recall the original players in the port’s operations having been completed just as the ball on the eventual formation of the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board was set in motion and is thus a marker of a significant point in the port’s history.

Perched on the southern slope of Mount Faber, the house would have offered an wonderful view of Keppel Harbour when it was first built.

The house in question, lies close to the reservoir that was (allegedly) rediscovered in 2014, at 11 Keppel Hill. Completed in the final years of the 1800s and on land that was owned by the New Harbour Dock Company, it would have been erected to house the company’s most senior manager, being the largest of a cluster of new residences designed by Lermit and Westerhout that company had been in the process of erecting around and after 1897. While I have not come across plans for the house at 11 Keppel Hill, there seems to be several similarities in the plans developed by the architects for the other bungalows. This includes a central air and light well (if I can call it that) that is topped by a jack roof. A mention of what appears to be the house in question can also be found in a 1899 newspaper article. That describes a climb made by a party from the dock company from a reservoir it was constructing on the slopes of Mount Faber to the site of its “new house”. A description of its location of the house was also provided, with the house being “overlooked by the Mount Faber flagstaff”, and that it commanded a “splendid view of New Harbour and its surroundings.” The house, is the only one of the cluster of residences, one of which was Keppel Bungalow, that has been left standing.

An interesting feature of the house is a set of cast iron columns mounted on a concrete base. The rather incongruous overhang that the columns support would probably have been an upper floor verandah that someone saw fit to enclose.

With the amalgamation of the two dock companies, the house was named “Keppel House” and housed the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company’s Resident Civil Engineer, a position that was created in 1901 with the extensive construction works that the company had embarked on in mind. The first to hold the position was a Mr J Llewelyn Holmes, who left the position in June 1903. Holmes’ replacement, Mr Alan Railton, was known to have taken up residence at Keppel House.

Close up of the base of an iron column.

Having been left vacant following the expropriation, Keppel House was then put up for rent before becoming the official residence of the Chairman of the SHB some time around 1918. It was then already occupied by Mr Stanley Arthur Lane. Lane’s move into the house occured sometime around 1916. A civil engineer, once of Sir John Jackson and Company, Lane came to Singapore late in 1907 to take up the role of Assistant Manager with the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board. Often acting as the Chairman of the Singapore Harbour Board in the absence of his predecessor John Rumney Nicholson, Lane’s appointment as Chairman came in 1918.

Stanley Lane, a resident of 11 Keppel Hill from around 1916 to 1923.

Keppel House most eventful years would come with the appointment of Mr George Trimmer —  Sir George Trimmer from 1937, as Chairman upon Lane’s retirement in 1923. Trimmer retired in 1938, having overseen a massive port expansion programme that added almost a kilometre of new wharfage to accommodate large ocean-going vessels and added a number of new transit godowns. Trimmer was known to be an excellent host. It was also during Trimmer’s tenure at Keppel House that the nearby reservoir doubled up as a private swimming pool for the house’s residents and its guests.

Sir George Trimmer, a long time resident of Keppel House.

An especially interesting event that took place during Trimmer’s stay in Keppel House was the successful transmission of both live and recorded music from it to a shortwave transmitter several miles away and then over the air. The experiment was conducted by an amateur radio broadcaster, who was also an employee of SHB, Robert Earle. Earle ran a radio station, V1SAB, with his wife for several years in the 1930s, broadcasting late in the evening twice a week.

The garage and the servants’ quarters. The house would have had stables originally.

Trimmer’s successor was Mr H K Rodgers, whose confirmation as Chairman and General Manager of the SHB was confirmed in August 1939 just as the dark clouds of war gathered over Europe. Rodgers would soon find himself caught up in the SHB’s own preparations for war. Keppel House would itself become a venue for events connect with the war in Europe and later, with the war’s arrival to Singapore’s shores. The performance of Dutch choir at a 1941 Christmas party thrown by Rodgers, saw guests, which reported numbered a hundred, join in the singing of Silent Night, Holy Night and Noel. Rodgers, would soon find himself organising an evacuation of SHB’s European staff, many of whom left Singapore on board the Bagan — a Penang ferry —  on 11 February 1942 with Singapore’s fall seemingly imminent. Rodgers, who saw to the organisation of the evacuation from his residence, would himself leave Singapore early on 14 February 1942 — a day before Singapore’s inglorious fall — on the Tenggaroh, a launch that belonged to the Sultan of Johor. Rodgers eventually found his way to Australia, having made his way to Sumatra on the Tenggaroh. He returned to Singapore in 1946 to take up the role of the Managing Director of United Engineers Limited, a firm which operated a shipyard at Tanjong Rhu.

Iron balustrades on the rear verandah.

The Japanese Occupation, saw the operation of SHB’s repair facilities as the Syonan Shipyard by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) with staff from MHI’s Kobe yard. The first batch of MHI employees arrived in Singapore in March 1942 and immediately set about the task of restoring the damaged facilities. The working conditions at the yard took their toll on the MHI staff. At the end of 1944, some 15% of MHI employees sent to Singapore had either perished or return home due to illness. Among those who died was an engineer whose tomb can be found near Keppel House. It is quite probably that the engineer, as well as other members of MHI’s Syonan Shipyard’s senior staff, were in residence at Keppel House during this time.

A view of the rear of the house.

After the war, the house reverted to being a residence for the SHB Chairman with Mr H B Basten being its first post-occupation resident. The arrangement would end in 1964 with the formation of PSA. The house found several uses over the years, becoming the PSA Central Training School in the 1970s, following which it was leased out as offices. Its tenants included a management consulting firm and an architectural firm who maintained flats on the upper floor for its staff. The house, which is currently vacant, was part of a group of houses on the southern ridges that were given conservation status in 2005.


This visit to Keppel House was carried out with the kind permission of the Singapore Land Authority.



Inside and around the house :






The luck of Eden Hall

10 07 2022

There is no better time to visit Eden Hall — the rather grand official residence of the British High Commissioner at Nassim Road, than on an occasion when a party is thrown. It provides an opportunity to view the house in all its splendour and indulge in some good old British fish and chips. Having received an invitation to Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebration by virtue of my appearance in a video in which I recalled Her Majesty’s visit to my Toa Payoh flat in 1972 that the High Commission had put together, I was able to do just that in early June. It was my second visit to the grand old residence, but one due to the significance of the occasion, was rather special.

Eden Hall on the occasion of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, June 2022.

Eden Hall has been an object of fascination for me ever since I learnt of its link to Ezekiel Saleh (E S) Manasseh. A wealthy Baghdadi Jew, Manasseh held a substantial fortune and together with a younger brother Rupert, ran the Singapore arm of a firm that together with four other brothers, had inherited from their father Saleh Manasseh of Calcutta. The firm had considerable success in the trade in opium, and later in jute, which was used for making gunny sacks . E S Manasseh, who was perhaps best known as being a co-founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, passed on in May 1944 as a civilian internee in Sime Road Camp (to which civilian internees were moved to from Changi prison that same month).

Her Excellency Kara Owen, the British High Commissioner to Singapore, speaking during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Celebrations.

Designed by R A J Bidwell of Swan and Maclaren and built for E S Manasseh, Eden Hall was set on a sprawling 1.8 ha site. The site was one carved out of the former Lady Hill estate and had been purchased in 1903 by business partner in the family firm, Saul Jacob Nathan. While the construction of the house dates back to 1904, Manasseh apparently only purchased the site outright in 1912. Manasseh had it named Eden Hall, relating it to a goblet on which a family’s fate depended, “The Luck of Eden Hall” — that was the subject of a poem of the same name that was known to Manasseh. A rather interesting feature that distinguishes Eden Hall from other mansions is its Wedgwood Jasperware-like sprig relief type patterns decorating its façade.

E S Manasseh

Through S Manasseh and Co, Eden Hall was initially let out to a Mrs Elizabeth Campbell, who ran a boarding house in it that might have been quite a rowdy place. Following his marriage to a widow, Elsie Trilby Bath in 1916, E S Manasseh moved in with his new wife and her children from a previous marriage. Also moving in in 1916 was another of E S Manasseh’s brothers, Alan, who had come to Singapore to replace Rupert as E S’ partner. Alan Manasseh, incidentally was the father of the renowned British architect Leonard Manasseh, who was actually born at Eden Hall in May 1916 not long after his parents had moved in.

Chole Manasseh, granddaughter of Leonard Manasseh, at Eden Hall in May 2019.

The mansion was reportedly used by the Japanese as an officers’ mess during the Japanese Occupation, and after the war and death of E S Manasseh, came into the hands of Vivian Bath, Manasseh’s stepson and one of Elsie Bath’s two children. Bath would sell it to the British Government in 1955 for £55,000 for use by its Commissioner General. At Bath’s insistence, a plaque with the words “May the Union Jack fly here forever” was fixed to the base of the flagpole flying the Union Jack. Eden Hall subsequently became the residence of the British Commissioner and then upon independence, the High Commissioner to Singapore.

The plaque with the words “May the Union Jack fly here forever”, seen during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

Fears emerged in 1983 that the Union Jack’s perch atop the Nassim Road flagpole would be brought to an end by an austerity drive that targetted lavish diplomats homes. During that time, the fact that there were in fact calls for the Foreign Office to dispose Eden Hall since 1973. Fortunately for Eden Hall and Britains subsequent High Commissioners to Singapore, a decision was made to keep Eden Hall in 1984. The size of the land that surrounds the mansion has however been substantially reduced through sales of several plots. The first in April 2001, of a 1.01 ha plot to motoring tycoon Peter Kwee and “Popiah King” Sam Goi, netted just over $50 million. An exercise was also held to offer two additional plots totalling 0.31 ha in 2015. Though initially unsuccessful, the two sites would eventually be sold when their sale was relaunched the following year, with OUE paying a reported $56.6 million for the plots.

A clearer image of the plaque.
Eden Hall in 2019.

Around Eden Hall, during the jubilee celebrations and in May 2019.





A place of mystery and a place of discovery: Baroque House at Rowell Road

7 07 2022

Old spaces made new often lose a certain level of their charm in the effort to refresh them in the way that the modern world demands. More often than not, their age-old fabric is discarded, and out with it goes the stories that the years and users of the space may have been woven into it. It was therefore with great delight that in rather quaint old space by the name of Baroque House, which has retained its fabric even with renewal, and along with it, a certain charm and mystery. Housed in a century-old shophouse, its name was inspired by the term “Chinese Baroque”, which is applied in Singapore to describe very ornately adorned shophouses. In Baroque House, one finds quite an unlikely setting for what it has become: a private kitchen, an event space, and most of all, a place to discover.

Ventilation blocks from the past inside Baroque House.

My journey of discovery began almost from the off, when I received an invitation from Sonia Ong, the proprietress of Baroque House. The invitation, laced with a tinge of mystery, promised a “secret garden” tour, and more importantly, the irresistible company of good “spirits” through Baroque House’s Bourbon Tasting Omakase dinner menu, which did not take any persuasion for me to agree to. So, armed with only a hint of what to expect and an address, I made my way down Rowell Road one Monday afternoon. Rowell Road is of course a street that is better known for the wrong reasons and I was just as curious as to what Baroque House was all about, as I was about why Rowell Road?

Inside Baroque House.

It wasn’t hard to identify the house in question, its closed pink timber doors and windows and its floral decor setting it apart from the other shophouses along the same row. The exterior was just about all about Baroque House that matched what I had imagined it would be. With the parting of the doors — which did not creak when they were opened as I might have expected them to, I was greeted by Sonia herself who on stepping aside, brought the somewhat oddly and somewhat spartanly furnished space into view. A large chandelier made the space all the more curious, as did the hall’s well worn decorative floor tiles. The cement tiles had age written all over them and that added to mysterious quality of the place. Written in the tiles was not just age but also faded-glory, as it was safe to say that they were laid for an occupant or owner who was rather well off. This set the tone for the visit and I found myself eager to discover more! Joyfully, through Sonia’s Baroque House Secret Garden Tour, I was very soon able to learn much more.

Doors that are apparently a century old, beyond which lies the rather intriguing old world that is Baroque House.

Sonia would reveal was that the house was one of a pair (Nos. 29 and 31), both of which were constructed circa 1919 for a Fong Sien Long. Fong, as it turns out, was a member of the nearby Kampong Kapor Methodist Church. A seemingly wealthy property owner, Fong’s portfolio extended to sites around MacKenzie Road, Jalan Besar, Queen Street and Koek Road. The Rowell Road houses were, quite interestingly, designed by well-known Eurasian architect J B Westerhout. Architectural works in Westerhout’s name include what is known today as the Temasek Shophouse, and the Stamford Arts Centre.

No 29 and 31 Rowell Road, which were a pair built for Mr Fong Sien Leong that were designed by J B W

From what I have dug out on my own, it would appear that the house may have exchanged hands in 1931 when N B Westerhout — J B’s elder brother and a lawyer was reported to have purchased 29 Rowell Road at a mortgagee’s tender. What Sonia has found out was that more recently, the house — built originally as a residential shophouse and used as a low-cost residential unit at some point in time, was used as a commercial space by Cheng Fong Signcraft. After the sign craft shop moved out, the unit remained unoccupied for a period of about five years before Sonia chanced upon it. It would seem that it is their stories that have been “etched” in patterns of wear on the floor tiles. What seems remarkable to me is that the tiles have not only survived all these years, but were also — save for the wear, very much intact and that Sonia made a conscious effort to retain the character of the shophouse by keeping them.

Worn decorative floor tiles.

For Sonia, creating Baroque House has been a labour of love. It was in a quest to fulfil a life-long dream of owning a shophouse that she stumbled upon this well-worn house in Little India — or as I prefer to call it, the Village of Lime (Soonambu Kambam). Drawn by its character and the stories of past glory that the shophouse’s well worn fabric seemed to tell, it was love at first sight for Sonia. She set about purchasing the house and as she puts it, “nursed it back” to its current condition. Intent to keep the sense of use and history of the house, Sonia ignored suggestions to have much of the shophouse’s fabric replaced, renewing and replacing only what was needed such as termite infested timbers. She was thus able to keep the character of the house as she first saw it and retain it as a veritable treasure trove of past memories.

The reception hall.

Necessary repairs, carried out on the roof, would reveal what has become one of the highlights of Sonia’s secret garden tour, a hidden secret that the shophouse must have held through the course of its one-hundred and more years! The secret, a decorated party wall that appears to have served as an end gable wall, had been kept well hidden behind the house’s ceiling boards. In the motifs of the plasterwork there is also much mystery and begged the question of what it represented or why it was put there. What Sonia speculates is that the decorative plasterwork, and perhaps the floor tiles on the ground floor, may be an indication that what would have been a vacant plot of land before 29 and 31 Rowell Road was built was some kind of yard for the house next door — which rather curiously is numbered No 21.

Mysterious plasterwork that remained hidden for a hundred years.

Sonia’s choices in decorating the house is in keeping with the baroque in its name. Beside the chandelier, ornate furniture pieces that include an exquisite antique Chinese conjugal bed, artwork by local artist Jeremy Hiah, an antique baby grand piano, and somewhat out-of-place but yet in-place skateboard decks decorated with the likeness of Paul Gauguin’s art are some of items that Sonia has brought in, giving the house a quirky and curious quality.

The dining room with the best table.

With the discovery of the house’s interior complete (I did not have enough and actually had a second look later), it was time for an equally intriguing dining experience, and not to forget of course, some bourbon! This was served in the dining room (at the best table) with dessert served in the hall and was experience in itself! The ornately decorated dining room does put one in the mood for food and conversation and that started with the serving of the first course, with which foie gras and pumpkin soup served with fig cracker was paired with a Wild Turkey Rare Breed. Next was a Maker’s Mark 46 — which I instantly took to, served with a meaty but tender and delicious main course of wood-fired Wagyu brisket, pulled pork, spare ribs and smoked chicken. Dessert was interestingly a banana and marshmallow pudding, which I could douse with a bit of Angel’s Envy bourbon before doing a DIY flambé of the assembly.

The first course of the Bourbon Tasting Omakase dinner menu.
The main course with Makers’ Mark 46.
DIY time.

In all, the experience was really quite unique and one that, especially if you are looking for something quite unique and laced with discovery, I highly recommend. The experiences are not confined to the Secret Garden Tour, or to private dining and Baroque House offers an array of other activities such as Bourbon Tasting, Murder of a Millionnaire Mystery Night (a live-action game along the lines of jubensha) which comes with props, facilitators, 3-course dinner and a glass of Prosecco,  Scones at Baroque House (for tea), Wine and Cheese Club, Special Rum Tasting, Sake Tasting, Champagne Tasting, Little India Marketing and Cooking Tour, Chinese Heritage Kueh cooking class, Tea Tasting sessions (and I am told unique tasting sessions such as Indian Mango tasting during the season). The house is also available for rent. For more information, please visit www.baroquehaus.com.


 





An old new world: the old train depot at Sentul

29 06 2022

I love an old space, especially one in which one finds a character that speaks very loudly of its past. It seems increasingly difficult to find one, especially as the pace seems to have quickened when it comes to repurposing old spaces to remain relevant in the present and for the future. Many, having been redeployed in a meaningful way, seem to lose the essence of what they were in the effort to keep them up to speed with the demands of modern world. It was thus quite a refreshing for me to step into three wonderful examples of repurposed spaces that remain a portal into the past in a short span of less than a fortnight — the first being Sentul Depot, which is across the causeway in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot, which is quite an instagrammable place to visit.

Old train maintenance yards always have a certain appeal for me and in them one finds many tales of the past and structures with much character. Stepping into the one at Sentul, which has partially been repurposed by a private developer as an arts and lifestyle destination, brought to mind the yard we once had in Singapore that had been part of the former railway complex at Tanjong Pagar. It is certainly a shame that the yard in Singapore or at least part of it, could not be retained and transformed in a similar way.


Workshops and maintenance sheds of the former railway yard at Tanjong Pagar seen in 2011
(since demolished)


The siting the depot at Sentul, originally named Central Railway Workshops, can be traced back to the formation of the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR). The railway administration made a decision to house its huge build and maintenance complex in the area in 1902. The location, just three miles out of town along Batu Road, offered several advantages, chief among which was its position relative to both the main line running through the administrative centre of Selangor and the FMS, and to the Batu Caves. The Batu Caves were where the granite quarries that were exploited to provide railway ballast could be obtained from. A branch line was built to serve the workshop complex — described as “eclipsing anything of the sort in the East” — could also be extended to the quarries.

The entrance to Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot

Construction on the Sentul complex began in 1903 and the workshops were fully operational by August 1906. The complex featured “huge blocks of buildings ” that housed stores, engine and carriage working sheds, running sheds, factories and foundries with a shed that was observed to be 38 feet (~11.6 metres) by 150 feet (~45.7 metres) wide. The complex was able to handle the working of up to 700 miles (1126.5 km) of open line. There were also quarters built for the engineers, supervisory staff, and also coolies (workmen) — quite a number of whom were members of the Tamil community.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot
USAAF Raid on Sentul, 1945

Much of the yard and workshops would be destroyed by bombing during the latter stages of the Japanese Occupation. An obvious target for bombing raids made by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), well over 60 per cent of the yard and workshop area, which covered an area of some 5.7 hectares, was destroyed in early 1945. This forced the Japanese to move and disperse the railway works further afield. Following the end of the war, a huge effort was undertaken to clear the wreckage left by the air raids. The major part of the rehabilitation effort was completed only at the end of 1952, some seven years after the end of the war, having been delayed by the communist insurgency. During this time, the site became known as the Sentul Works (or Workshops).

A view of one of the disused sheds.

Sentul Works, which employed a workforce of five thousand at its height, remained in use until the the early 2000s and was decommissioned in 2009 (although KTM — the successor of the FMSR and later Malayan Railway maintains an EMU Depot next to it). The complex has since been bought up a a private developer YTL, and is in the process of being redeveloped. Among the attractions housed within the Sentul Depot complex is Tiffin at the Yard, which provides an opportunity not just to visit the former railway works, but also to dine in it.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot




Lost places: the police station at Singapore’s “little garden suburb”

26 06 2022

The area around the fifth milestone of Aukang / Serangoon was once described as a “little garden suburb”. That was back in the 1930s, around the time when the area gained a degree of prominence as a rural centre with the opening of RAF Seletar just three miles up Yio Chu Kang Road. The period was indeed a busy period in terms of the development of the area with the construction of several of the area’s landmarks. This included the building of a new police station, which replaced an older station, a Municipal market at Lim Tua Tow Road which could be thought of as being the predecessor of the 1950s built market that many in my generation would know, and the older Paya Lebar Methodist Church (and the girls school).

Paya Lebar Police Station, 1958
(Charles Ralph Saunders, posted by Stewart Saunders on On a Little Street in Singapore)

The police station traced its history back to the 1870s, having been set up along what was essentially on of the first cross-island roads that led to Serangoon Harbour (Kangkar). The station building that most will remember was a replacement that was built around 1929; its construction comings as part of a decade-long modernisation effort that was initiated by Inspector General Harold Fairburn to bring greater professionalism the Straits Settlements Police Force. That station was also one built as a police division headquarters or HQ (Paya Lebar Division was initially named “G” Division before becoming “F” Division), and thus bore the characteristics of many of the some of the larger out-of-town stations of the era and also several buildings within the Old Police Academy. As with the main stations coming up back then, Paya Lebar’s was provided with low-rise barrack blocks to house the rank and file. Over the yeats, a nursery and orchard were added, along with a fish pond and an aviary. Prior to the station’s decommissioning, the practice of housing police officers and their families was stopped and the barracks were converted for use as police offices.

The fifth mile area in 1967. The police station can be seen top centre on the left and the older Paya Lebar Methodist Church top centre on the right of Upper Serangoon Road (photo: National Archives of Singapore)

What was interesting about the “F” Division was that it was the second largest in Singapore, covering an area of some 139 square kilometres. This extended to a part of Singapore that included two airports (Paya Lebar International Airport and Seletar Air Base), the area of the former Naval Base where the UNHCR maintained a refugee camp, and the notorious Tai Seng, Ang Mo Kio and Chong Pang areas, which were hotbed of secret society activity and the officers at the station certainly had their hands full.

The area before the Forest Woods development came up, dominated by the Upper Serangoon Viaduct (the former barracks can be seen on the left)

The division also served a population of almost 450,000 by the time the station was decommissioned in August 1987 following its move to Ang Mo Kio. This coincided with the completion of a new division HQ station and Paya Lebar Division morphing into the current Ang Mo Kio Police Division. Rapid urbanisation and redevelopment, including the development of the huge Ang Mo Kio New Town, and the need for modern infrastructure, made the move necessary. The former station’s buildings were then used by the 3rd Division SCDF from 1988 until a new Divisional HQ and fire station was completed in 2005 at Yishun Industrial Park A.

The widening of Upper Serangoon Road in way of its junction with Upper Paya Lebar and Boundary Roads to accommodate a flyover, saw to the demolition of the former station. The other reminders of the station, in the form of its former accommodation blocks, used in the interim as educational premises, were only demolished in late 2016 following the sale of the plot in late 2015 through a tender exercise for private residential development. The site, which was bought for some SGD321 million is now where Forest Woods, a condominium complex, now stands.

Harold Fairburn

Modernising the Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF)

The effort to modernise the police force was an initiative of Harold Fairburn, Inspector General of the Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF) from 1925 to 1935. It came during a period of time when the SSPF faced great challenges in dealing with a wave of criminal activity. Singapore, then also known as “Sin-galore”, had the reputation of being the “Chicago of the East”. An improvement in policing methods, in recruitment of personnel, and in the methods of training was sorely needed. A massive building programme was also initiated to improve facilities, and living conditions of police personnel and their families and out of this programme, came the Police Training Depot (old Police Academy), stations such as the “Police Skyscraper” or Hill Street Police Station, Maxwell Road Police Station and Beach Road Police Station, were built. Stations also featured barrack accommodation. Accommodation facilities for also provided for the Sikh contingent at Pearls Hill.





Goodbye to a View

30 05 2022

The pace of development in the north of Singapore, a part of the island of which I have some wonderful childhood memories of, seems to be quickening. The recent demolition of all but one of the blocks of KD Malaya and the loss of its parade square has left the section of the old naval base closest to the causeway almost unrecognisable. Nearby, former residents of another marker of memory, the former “Torpedo Lines” at Khalsa Crescent — most recently a prison, returned to say goodbye and have their memories collected ahead of its probable eventual demolition in an event organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) last week. A little further east, it has already been some time since the loss of part of the elevation that played host to a UNHCR refugee camp for “Boat People” fleeing South Vietnam. The same elevation was also home to the former View Road Hospital, a branch of Woodbridge Hospital (now Institute of Mental Health), which stood at its top. The building that housed it, which dates back to 1941 and is still standing, is a longtime marker that if the URA Master Plan for the area is to be realised, may also soon disappear from sight.

The observation tower at View Road.

Although the former View Road Hospital, once also a home to Asian Naval Base Policemen and their families may be of little architectural value and of little significance in the whole scheme of buildings within the former naval base, it has, since I started conducting tours in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) in 2017, has become one of my favourite places. Why that is so is for the views one is able to get from its lookout tower, one that now provides an idea of the scale of redevelopment that is taking place in and around it. An example of the development work that is now in evidence, is the Rail Transit System link that will connect Woodlands North to Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru via a 25 metre high bridge. Scheduled to open by the end of 2026, it will transform the area into a major entry point for cross border human traffic with its peak capacity of 10,000 passengers per hour.

Among the other developments that is already taking place in the area, is that of the future Woodlands North Coast, a component the overall Woodland Regional Centre. Based on the URA Master Plane, that does appear to spell the end for the former hospital.

The future of View Road (URA Master Plan 2019).




Glamour and scandal in the skies

16 05 2022

The 1920s in Singapore were exciting times for aviation. Late in 1919, Singapore witnessed its very first inbound flight, a Vickers Vimy which carried four men and which landed at the racecourse (now Farrer Park). In the excitement of seeing the Vimy land, many would have missed the sight of its mechanic, Jim Bennett, sliding along the fuselage toward the aircraft’s tail keep the nose up just before landing. The brave act — the equivalent of flaring on landing today, was quite necessary given the short landing distance required at the makeshift airfield. This would be a pattern for flights into Singapore that would follow, even after a dedicated but still makeshift landing ground had been prepared by filling Government sand pits at Balestier Plain in the early 1920s anticipation of an increase air traffic. 

The first ever flight into and out of Singapore was on a Vickers Vimy carrying four crew, which landed in Singapore in December 1919.

The lack of a proper airfield proved of little deterrence to the string of intrepid aviators that Singapore would see through the 1920s. Many, on their quests for fame, touched down here out of necessity more than anything else, as the technology of the day required multiple stopovers as flights could not take place in the dark and, due to the short range of aircraft then, required to be refuelled every few hundred miles.   

The location of Balestier Plain Aviation Ground

Among those who touched down at Balestier Plain was pioneering Australian aviator, Mrs Keith Miller (Jessie Maude “Chubby”) on 7 January 1928. The world had a fascination for the female aviator, who added a touch of femininity and glamour to the skies .She would be the first among several aviatrices to land in Singapore — although she did not actually pilot the Red Rose — a small Avro Avian that was owned and piloted by Captain Bill Lancaster. Capt Lancaster, an RAF pilot, described the aviation ground as a quagmire — something that could also describe the somewhat scandalous relationship that the pair, both of whom had spouses, would forge during the long and eventful journey from England to Australia. The pair, who took off from the racecourse (due to the unsuitability of the aviation ground) two days after landing on 9 January, survived a crash on the island of Muntok that resulted in them spending two months in Singapore having the Red Rose repaired. Repaired and tested, the Red Rose  took off once again on 14 March 1928 and arrived in Darwin on 19 March.

Bill Lancaster and Jessie Miller.

Some years later in August 1932, a murder trial involving the killing of a certain Haden Clarke, played out at the Miami Dade County Courthouse. Capt Lancaster had been charged with Clarke’s murder, which took place at a rented Miami home of Mrs Miller. During the trial, a sordid tale of love and betrayal emerged. Mrs Miller, who arrived in the United States with her lover Lancaster with the intent of having her autobiography written. She became romantically involved with Clarke, who she had employed to be a ghostwriter for the autobiography, and the allegation was that Lancaster had killed Clarke out of jealousy.  It also emerged during the trial that Clarke had deceived Mrs Miller and was a bigamist.  Lancaster was acquitted of the murder, and the pair, who were deemed to have overstayed in the US, were deported. 

The RAF aerodrome, and later the civil aerodrome at Kallang (terminal building pictured here) would be a big improvement on the “quagmire” that the Balestier Plain aviation ground was described as.

The development of RAF Seletar, and its opening to civil aviation, would write a new chapter for aviation here in Singapore. The military aerodrome, built to provide air cover for an intended naval base, would see the launch of the first regular air services to and from Singapore “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten  first between Singapore and the Dutch East Indies and eventually with Europe in 1933. The aerodrome would also serve as a staging ground for several other female aviators attempting to set records flying from England to Australia, who included the likes of Amy Johnson and the “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten. By the time of the arrival of Amelia Earhart in June 1937, who was perhaps the best known of teh aviatrices, RAF Seletar was forgotten as a dual-use airport and Singapore’s first civil aerodrome at Kallang, was in operation.


The first inbound flight
Piloted by brothers Ross and Keith Smith, a converted Vickers Vimy — a bomber built for use in the First World War but did not get to see action, touched down at the racecourse on 4 December 1919. Together with mechanics James (Jim) Bennett and Walter Shiers, the Smiths had their eye on a prize money of £10,000 — in excess of S$900,000 in today’s terms — being offered by the Commonwealth Government for being the first to fly from England to Australia. One condition was that the flight was to be done in less than 30 days and the four men were well on their way to achieving that, having arrived in Singapore some 22 days after taking off from Hounslow in London. The historic flight would land in Australian soil at Port Darwin on 10 December 1919, four days after taking off on 6 December from Singapore.


The contents of this post supplement that of my talk (cum virtual tour of old Kallang Airport), “An Aviation Journey“, for Singapore Heritage Festival held on 8 May 2022.





An enlightened space

4 04 2022

Voluminous spaces amply illuminated by natural light are often a visually treat. We have quite a number of these spaces in Singapore, including several that go back to a time when harnessing natural light and ventilation for interior spaces all seemed very logical.

A view of the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

One fine example of a such a voluminous space is the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The hall features a high vaulted ceiling that rises to a height of some 21.6 metres to keep its users cool. A fair amount of natural light also streams into the space through windows placed at its roof’s gable ends and also along the sides, making it quite a joy to behold. The station is one of many designs that have flown off the drawing boards of architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. The design of the hall’s gable ends recalls the one of the firm’s earlier works, the Malayan Motors showroom on Orchard Road.

The former Malayan Motors showroom.

Designed in 1925, the building — like Tanjong Pagar Railway Station — can still be admired. It now stands at the end of a delightful row of conserved buildings opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT station and looking at it, it is not hard to see how the former showroom must have been quite an attraction on Orchard Road when it was completed in early 1927. The showroom’s façade, which is effectively a gable end, is topped by a sunburst like decorative feature that seems very much to be a call for attention. The window arrangement on this face does also seem quite similar to that of the gable ends of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s main hall, although in being dressed to act as the showroom’s street facing façade, is much more elaborately designed.

Similarities can be seen between Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the former Malayan Motors showroom.

The former showroom, which now stands as a marker of a stretch of Orchard Road that was at the heart of Singapore’s motoring trade, has long fascinated me. Other than its showroom on the ground floor, which I had chance to visit as a child when my father purchased a Morris Marina in the 1970s, I’ve often wondered what lay behind the glorious face of building and its multitude of windows. I long imagined that was a showroom or perhaps a workshop on its upper floors and I was rather disappointed to learn from the building’s plans that what did lie under the rather elaborate roof were offices — at least at the point of design. Knowing this, what now intrigues me is why all that elaboration for a set of mere offices? Whatever it was however, it must have been quite a space to marvel at.

What lies behind the face of the Malayan Motors showroom’s gabled ends.

The showroom’s construction came at a time when the motoring trade was on the up and when Orchard Road had established its place a centre for the business of getting around. The street in its post-plantation era, had become a choice residential neighbourhood and both residents and visitors needed a means to move around, especially with Orchard Road being some distance from the commercial area. By the late 1800s, livery stables from which horses and carriages could be hired, lined the street. Hackney carriages plied the street as much as taxis now do, and carriages makers and horse traders set up shop.

Stables on Orchard Road.

The introduction of the motorcar would see a change of fortunes for those involved in the trade. Some of those involved in the business of horses and carriages would become among the first to trade instead in horsepower, leading to the area retaining its place as a hub as the private transportation business evolved. New entrants to the business, with a greater capacity to respond to shifting demands, soon dominated the scene, with names such as Cycle and Carriage and C F F Wearne (later Wearne Brothers) — now household names in the trade, setting up shop in the area in the early 1900s. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, at least a dozen car dealerships had been established in the area close to the entrance to Government House — something I touched on during the Age of Locomotion tour that I recently conducted as part of a series of four historical tours of Orchard Road for Design Orchard’s “The Non Season”.

The “motor” end of Orchard Road, a hundred years apart.

C F F Wearne and Co, one of many success stories associated with the motoring trade, was founded by two Western Australian brothers Charles Frederick Foster Wearne and his brother Theodore James Benjamin (T J B or Theo). The two had come across to Singapore in 1892 and worked their way up from being apprentices at the New Harbour Dock Company to qualify as marine engineers. In 1906, with a startup capital of 700 Straits dollars that Theo provided, C F F Wearne and Co was established as a motor garage in Theo’s brother-in-law’s coach house. This was a time when there were just a handful of cars on the island. In a matter of months, C F F Wearne and Co moved into two shophouse units in Orchard Road. Having secured the agency for Oldsmobiles, the company would expand its portfolio to include makes such as Morris, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Ford and in no time, established themselves as a main player in the business with C F F Wearne and Co becoming Wearne Brothers.

The 1910 built C F F Wearne Garage

By 1924, Wearne Brothers would be producing car bodies locally for assembly to Ford car chassis shipped to Singapore by Ford Canada for the local market. A small assembly plant was established at Penang Lane to handle the work. To avoid any conflict of interests between the Ford agency and other agencies under the Wearne Brothers umbrella, a subsidiary, Malayan Motors, was set up the same year acting as agents for agents for Armstrong-Siddley, Morris, Sunbeam, Packard, Rolls-Royce, Essex, Erksine and Standard motorcars. Malayan Motors operated out of the 1910 constructed C F F Wearnes’ garage, which stood on the site of the 1927 built Malayan Motors showroom at 14-20 Orchard Road. The 1927 building does in fact have the 1910 building appended to it, having been built in front of the older structure. This is quite evident from the difference in floor levels of the older back section and newer front section of the former showroom.

The difference in floor levels between the old and new sections of the building.

Wearne Brothers, which established the first local airline to operate out of Singapore in 1937, Wearnes Air Services (Charles Wearne was also a great aviation enthusiast), would be greatly affected by the war. War not only disrupted Wearnes Air Services operations just as it was about to see returns on the investment and Wearnes’ other businesses operations, war would affect the Wearne brothers in a very personal way. Whilst Charles and Theo made it out of the very last shipping convoy to leave Singapore just a few days before the inglorious Fall of Singapore, two of Charles’ sons would become Prisoners of War. Charles also passed on at the age of 71 in Mandurah, Western Australia, a year before the war ended.

Malayan Motors made its last sale in the showroom in August 1980, after which the company consolidated it operations at its Leng Kee Road branch. The showroom was renovated in 1988 and used by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House and from 2002 to 2020, the building was used by the private school Management Development Institute of Singapore or MDIS.

The former showroom was a witness to war.

Let there be light!






The haunted spiral staircase

28 03 2022

A tale most of us in Singapore would have heard, is that of the spiral staircase found in the National Museum of Singapore being haunted. Cohorts of visiting school children seem to have heard it, with the take seemingly taking a creative turn with each generation.

The mysterious spiral staircase.

One often retold version of the tale, which has found its way into print in Editions Didier Millet’s 2011 publication “Singapore at Random”, has it that the ghost that is associated with the staircase is that of a former museum director Carl A Gibson-Hill. Gibson-Hill’s death in 1963, just days before he was due to relinquish the museum directorship, was ruled to be a suicide. While the death took place at his residence at Seton Close, Gibson-Hill is said to haunt not just the staircase but has also been “sighted” in the museum’s other spaces.

Digging around, it does however seem that the tale of the haunted spiral staircase predates the unfortunate director’s death. In a newspaper article in 1979 in the New Nation, the author Terry Tan admits to not having visited the museum since 1959, giving two possible reasons for his reluctance to do so. One, was how the “pervading gloom of the whole place lent credence to the spiral staircase being haunted” – which does show that the rumours were already around in 1959, four years before Gibson-Hill’s death. In addition to that a member of the museum’s staff that Tan had spoken to, speculated there were the heads of Orang Asli stored on the museum’s roof (to which the old staircase led). Although there seems little possibility about that story about the heads being true, Tan felt that it might have been a possible reason for the rumour behind the spiral staircase.

There possibly are quite a few more versions of the tale. Whatever it is we can quite safely assume that it isn’t Gibson-Hill who is responsible for the sound of the footsteps on the spiral staircase that some of us might have heard. Who or what haunts the staircase, and the reasons why, is still to me as much as mystery as it was when I was first told the story as a schoolboy.








Breaking KD Malaya’s last ship up

11 03 2022

For those whose connection with Singapore’s far north go back to the 20th century, the road to the causeway was one littered with an interesting range of sights. One such sight that would certainly have caught the eye, was that of KD Malaya, a camp from which Malaysia’s navy – Tentera Laut DiRaja Malaysia (TLDM) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) had its fleet based at until 1979, and which was used as a TLDM training facility right until 1997.

KD Malaya from Admiralty Road West – the layout of the buildings gave an appearance of the bow of a huge ship.

The centrepiece of the base was it large parade ground, beyond which an administrative building and two barrack buildings took on the appearance of the bow of a huge ship with the camp’s flagstaff seemingly a foremast. This was quite a remarkable sight, as one came around an area of Admiralty Road West that contained Hawkins Road refugee camp and View Road Hospital (the area was featured in Secrets in the Hood Episode 5).

The former KD Malaya, seen in 2020 after Admiralty West Prison vacated it.

The wondrous sight of the former KD Malaya is now one has quite sadly been lost to the frenzy of redevelopment has now reached Singapore’s once sleepy north, with the Woodlands North Coast development beginning to take shape. While the camp’s streamline moderne inspired former administration block may have been kept for posterity, the two barrack buildings that contributed to the sight has since been demolished. Along with that, the parade square, which had provided the setback to take the wonderful view in, has also been consigned to history. This breaking of a link with our shared history with Malaysia, through the removal of a significant physical reminder of it seems especially ironic with the development nearby of a new link to Malaysia through the Rapid Transit System.

Only the administration block remains today (with a granite-faced staircase leading up to it).

I shall miss the sight of the former KD Malaya, with which I have been familiar with since my childhood. Together with the wonderful spaces and landmarks in and around it, it has provided great joy and comfort, especially with much of the rest of a Singapore being transformed in a way made it hard to identify with. While KD Malaya’s administration block is being kept, my fear is that it becomes just another building in a space overcrowded with a clutter of structures of a brave new world – as seems the case many other developments in which heritage structures are present. An example is the transformation of the joyously green space around old Admiralty House into the monstrous Bukit Canberra development into which a ridiculous amount of concrete has been poured in and around which a clutter of structures has conspired to reduce the presence of the stately arts and crafts movement inspired old Admiralty House.

A road is being built around the site.

There is also the matter of KD Malaya’s gateposts, which will have to be relocated. Whatever happens to it and wherever it will eventually be re-sited, my hope is that it doesn’t go the way of the old National Library’s gateposts. Originally left in situ to mark the site of a much loved Singaporean building, the gateposts have since suffered the indignity of being displaced and put in a position in which it has become …. just another part of the scene.

KD Malaya’s old gate.
The road to perdition. Work on the Rapid Transit System is taking place, which will cross over that body of water that is seen to Johor Bahru.
Will the former Rimau Offices / View Road Hospital (and its unusual above ground “bomb-proof” office) be the next to go?




A lost world

10 03 2022

Photographs of a lost world that exists in a part of Singapore that has been reclaimed by nature.