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






Life in 1941 Singapore

7 08 2022

Brimming with life and already one of the world’s leading port cities, early 20th century Singapore received quite a fair bit of attention from the world’s press. Numerous news features and press reports were published and beyond that many images were also captured, images that are a visual record of a Singapore that is now difficult to imagine.

Singapore in 1941, a year during which the dark clouds of war were looming over the Far East, was especially well documented. For many here for much of 1941, the threat of war seemed a distant possibility, even if there were very visible preparations being made for the eventuality. Singapore was after all the bastion of British imperial power in the Far East, a great naval base, and if Britain were to be believed, an “impregnable” fortress.

Among the photographic records of Singapore from 1941, are the wonderful archives of unpublished photographs of Harrison Forman and Carl Mydans, which were captured for National Geographic magazine and LIFE magazine respectively. What can be seen in many of these photographs, some of which have already been featured in the linked articles, are preparations for war, street scenes, the legal processing, sale, and consumption of chandu (processed opium, and various aspects of the tin and rubber industry.

Many of the images, such as those of Carl Mydans that have been presented below, also offer a window into how life was like for both the common folk and the colonial elite and the contrast that is seen between the two is pretty stark.


Photographs: © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted.






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 :






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.


 





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).




Parting Glances: Khalsa Crescent, home turned prison

24 05 2022

Once home to a huge naval base that stretched from the Causeway to Sembawang Road, Singapore’s rather sleepy northern coast seems set for a huge transformation. Work to build a much-anticipated rail transit system link to Johor Bahru is already underway and the signs are that the ground is already being prepared for a role as key component of the future Woodlands Regional Centre. The demolition of much of the former KD Malaya complex is now already complete, and all that is left of the longtime landmark, sited in an area close to Woodlands North MRT Station is gone, save for the conserved administration building. One set of structures that may likely disappear is the former quarters at Khalsa Crescent, which many of us would only know as Khalsa Crescent Prison.

The former Khalsa Crescent Prison, which has a much storied past. Block 6 (Prison Block F) was used as accommodation for policemen and featured a recreational space below where lectures and police parties during Sikh religious festivals were held. The space also functioned as a games room.
The watchtowers of the former prison are what draws notice to the complex.

Built in 1950 on the site of the Torpedo Depot “coolie lines”, Khalsa Crescent (Asian) quarters provided Asian members of the naval base workforce and their families, with a roof over their heads. Among those who were housed on the site were members of the Naval Base Police Force and the Naval Base Fire Service, for whom the set of quarters was affectionately known as “Torpedo”, having been know initially as “Torpedo Depot Lines”. When built, the quarters comprised seven two-storey blocks cont laid out with some 170 rooms that could accommodate up to 180 families. Among the blocks were ones housing bachelors with common spaces such as rest and mess rooms and recreational spaces found on the ground floors. Flag Officer (Malaya), Rear Admiral Clifford Caslon, who opened the estate on 10 January 1950, described the construction of new housing units as evidence that interest to the welfare and comfort of the base’s civilian staff was being shown by the Admiralty.

The newly built accommodation blocks in 1950, with Blocks 1 and 2 (far end) on the left, and Blocks 3 (far end) and 4 on the right.
The scene today.

During its first years, the quarters accommodated a fair number of Sikhs families, who men served in the Naval Base Police Force. As a result of this, a gurdwara was established in the eastern section of the ground floor of Block 5. Due to this association with the Sikh members of the force, the road through the estate was named “Khalsa”, which means “pure” in Punjabi. Khalsa, which also describes the guiding principle of the Sikh religion community, is often used as a reference to the Sikh community. The gurdwara moved to View Road (Rimau), where an Asian Naval Base Police Barracks was established, together with the Sikh policemen and their families in 1959. Some naval base policemen continued to stay in Khalsa Crescent while there were others who also relocated to Cochrane Crescent at about the same time. In the 1960s, a surau for Muslim policemen and their families was established at Block 5.

The section of Block 5 where I am told the gurdwara was.

The British military pullout, which took place at the end of October 1971, also saw to the eventual disbandment of the various services associated with the naval base and while the quarters continued in their use as accommodation units, the winds of change would eventually blow through the estate. In late 1974, some three years after the pullout, several of the accommodation blocks at Khalsa Crescent were converted for use as a remand centre and the forerunner of the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) — the DRC system was apparently formalised in 1977, although the term was already in use – as part of a broader scheme to segregate drug inmates (also according to the number of times they were hauled in). But while this may have been the intention, one of the centre’s first uses was for the detention of illegal immigrants, more specifically a group of 56 who had fled South Vietnam as the situation deteriorated in the lead up to the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. The group of 56, with 18 women and 10 children among them, arrived on a stolen military plane on 3 April 1975. Having come without the necessary visas, they were detained as illegal immigrants and were held at Khalsa Crescent where they spent 3 weeks, after which they were sent on to Guam.

A view of the former prison.

This drug rehabilitation scheme saw further changes to it and by 1995, drug addicts would first be sent to Sembawang DRC, where they would be observed and further processing was carried out. They would then be placed based on their previous records. Khalsa Crescent DRC was where third time offenders were sent to. Khalsa Crescent’s capacity was increased from 500 to 1050 during a renovation exercise that was carried out in anticipation of this new arrangement. In June 2005, Khalsa Crescent DRC became simply Khalsa Crescent Prison.

Members of the Khalsa Crescent Sikh Community.

The modernisation and expansion of the Changi Prison complex in 2009, saw to the move of some 5000 inmates from prisons like Khalsa Crescent Prison, which was described as the “largest transfer of prisoners in local history”. What that also meant was that older facilities such as Khalsa Crescent Prison were made redundant and surplus to requirements. Decommissioned, the former prison lay hidden behind its tall green security fence — that is until 21 May 2022 when former residents of the one-time Asian quarters were allowed to take a short but sweet walk back in time in anticipation of the complex’s eventual demolition.

Memories of Khalsa Crescent.

Vietnamese Refugees in Singapore
Following the incident involving the 56 refugees arriving by plane, the opium treatment centre at St John’s Island was temporarily set aside for refugees. Addicts under treatment on the island displaced by the arrangements were then moved to Khalsa Crescent Remand Centre, where the 56 had been held. The island refugee camp would be closed in October 1975 and subsequent to that, Singapore took a strong stand against refugees who began to leave the former South Vietnam by boat. A policy of restocking refugee boats before towing the boats back out to sea was initially put in place. It would only be in 1978 at a time when the refugee crisis reached its peak that Singapore permitted refugees to land on the condition that a guarantee was made of resettlement in a third country within three months by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR was also allowed to set up and run a refugee camp at Hawkins Road, not far from Khalsa Crescent.


The evolution of the area through maps and aerials

Maps of the Torpedo Depot area showing the former coolie lines in 1945 and the blocks of the Asian quarters in 1968.
Plans of the site before and after the quarters were built.
Aerial views of the site during the time of the coolie lines and after the barracks were built (Maps from National Archives of Singapore)
What the crystal ball that is the URA Master Plan says that the Khalsa Crescent will be – a future residential development.

A walk around the former prison

The caged passageway built for the prison along the former Block 5, which became the prison’s Admin Block.
An Interview Room in the Admin Block.
A passageway between the Admin Block and the Workshop section of the prison.
A view towards the former RMN Sports Grounds, where the Rail Transit System link from Woodlands North to Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru is being built.
Inside Workshop 2, one of two prison workshops that were added during the prison days.
Inside a second workshop.
Staircase at Block 7, which was apparently a bachelors’ block.
Block 7, which had bachelors’ accommodation on the top. A Sikh cook prepared meals for the bachelors according to one former resident.
The Kitchen at Block 7.
Potential weapons have to be kept safe.
The Housing Unit – the roof was added to allow the space between the former accommodation and service blocks to be usable.

Inside a “Housing Unit”


More views of the former prison






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.





Merchants of misery

12 04 2022

The import, sale and distribution of opium contributed to a rather shameful episode in the history of modern Singapore. Cultivated in India by the (dis)Honourable East India Company to address the imbalance in trade, opium was became the scourge of China through the dependence it developed amongst its citizens. The drug was also distributed in Singapore up to the end of the Second World War. The Straits Settlements government would maintain a monopoly on its distribution, reaping a huge reward in terms of revenue from it.

A chandu shop, 1941 (Harrison Forman Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

Opium consigned those who developed a dependence on it to a life of misery, poverty and loneliness; a life that we are able to visualise through a series of photographs taken by two American photographers, Carl Mydans for LIFE Magazine and Harrison Forman for National Geographic, in 1941. The photographs also provide a glimpse of the elaborate mechanism that was put in place to maintain the government’s hold on the monopoly of distribution. A government run packing plant at the foot of what is today Bukit Chandu is featured, as are the Government Chandu Shops — officially sanctioned opium retail outlets, initially through which the opium revenue farmers sold the drug and after 1910, taken over by the government.

People from all walks of life were addicted. For coolies, the drug often allowed them to work beyond the barrier of pain. While they may have been able to earn more this way, much of what they gained would be channelled back into the consumption of opium. [Photograph: © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted].
The counter of a chandu shop, 1941 (Harrison Forman Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).
The counter of a chandu shop, 1941 (Harrison Forman Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).
A smoker registration card. Smoker registration was introduced in 1929 following the Geneva Convention on Opium to minimise the numbers of new addicts. [Photograph: © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted]

A life of loneliness


More views of the Government Chandu Shops


Raids

Raids on opium dens were regularly carried out in an attempt to put a stop to illegal (non-registered) smokers of opium and smuggled opium.


The Chandu Factory (Packing Plant) at the foot of Bukit Chandu


Photographs:
Carl Mydans, © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted.
Harrison Forman Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


Singapore and Opium

Set up by the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) in 1819 as its emporium at the maritime crossroads between East and West Asia, modern Singapore lay at the heart of the trade between India and China in the early 19th century. Silks, porcelain and tea from China made their journey westwards through Singapore. Opium, cultivated in India, was sent to China in increasing quantities. While the HEIC may have lost its control over the opium trade in 1834, and Singapore its position as the main entrepôt for trade to China in 1842 with the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain, opium continued to pass through and also come to Singapore with the domestic consumption of it being a major revenue earner into the 1900s.

The sale and distribution of opium, or chandu, within Singapore (and Malaya) was indeed highly lucrative. A monopoly was maintained by the government, who assigned the rights to distribute the drug and collect tax to its agents through a revenue farm system. Retail was carried out through government chandu shops run by a franchisee, whose profits on sales following the deduction of rents and overheads paid to the government, was theirs to keep. Revenue farms were also established for the distribution of pork and liquor, and for gambling. These so-called farms were certainly a cash-cow for “farmers”, who made a fair amount of money, which often provided the capital to invest in property and to diversify into other businesses.

Opposition to the rather illicit trade grew towards the end of the 19th century. In 1906, Imperial China embarked on an ambitious ten-year plan to prohibit the cultivation and use of opium, helped by a pledge to gradually reduce the supply of Indian opium to China by the progressive Liberal government in Britain. At the urging of the United States, the International Opium Commission met in Shanghai in 1909. The meeting was to kickstart a process that would culminate in the regulation of use of the drug and its production. In response to the 1929 Geneva Convention on Opium, smoker registration was introduced in Singapore and Malaya. While the sale and use of opium would be made illegal after the Second World War, the complete eradication of the habit in Singapore would take many more years.


Description of Opium Treatment in Singapore in the 1950s
https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/bulletin/bulletin_1957-01-01_3_page004.html

Before war broke out in Malaya in 1941, the use and sale of opium was controlled as a government monopoly. An addict, having been examined by a medical officer and duly certified, was registered and then permitted to purchase an allowance of opium from a government shop. It was the policy of the monopoly to bring about a gradual reduction in the consumption of opium by addicts in accordance with the provisions of The Hague Convention, of 1912, and of the Geneva Opium Agreement of 11 February 1925, the recommendations of the League of Nations Commission to the Straits Settlements in 1929,*and the Bangkok Agreement of 1931. The registers were finally closed, except for medical cases, on 31 December 1934. In 1927, sales of opium through the monopoly totalled 30,000 lb. By 1935, they were reduced to 19,000 lb., and by 1938 to 15,000 lb. At the time of the Japanese invasion in 1942, there were 16,552 addicts on the Singapore registers, while in the Federation of Malaya the figure was probably quadrupled. During the Japanese occupation of this country from 1942 to 1945, the registers were ignored, and anyone who could pay for it was allowed to smoke. The campaign since 1925 to promote gradual reduction of opium consumption was thus largely nullified, and as opium addiction was openly encouraged, the number of smokers alive today can only be conjectured.

From the liberation of Singapore in September 1945, no opium was purchased or sold by the Government of Singapore, and all shops were closed. In February 1946, an Opium and Chandu Proclamation declared a total prohibition of the sale and use of opium except for medicinal purposes. In 1951, this proclamation was superseded by the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, prohibiting the import, export, possession, manufacture or sale of opium. Any person contravening these provisions was liable to a fine not exceeding 10,000 Malayan dollars or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years, or both. The use of premises, the possession of utensils for the administration of opium, and the consumption of prepared opium, were also punishable under the law. The customs and police departments were responsible for the enforcement of these provisions, the former being organized the better to prevent the import of opium by sea, air or land, while the police dealt with internal peddling, and endeavoured to suppress the opium divans. The customs department also operated – on behalf of enforcement authorities in the Malayan area – a Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau for the dissemination and exchange of information on the traffic.

It was noted that many addicts, imprisoned for opium or other offences, showed a marked improvement in health as a result of prison routine, diet and treatment for their physical ailments, and it was decided that as an experiment a special penal institution for the treatment of addicts should be opened. Part of the quarantine station on St. John’s Island was selected for the purpose, because it offered a complete change of surroundings and living conditions and, as traffic to and from the island is controlled, a reasonable prospect of denying opium to the inmates.

The necessary legislation for the Opium Treatment Centre was enacted under the Dangerous Drugs (Temporary Provisions) Ordinance, 1954, which, inter alia, provides for the establishment of opium treatment centres, the appointment of officers, and the setting up of an advisory committee. The main centre on St. John’s Island was opened for the treatment of male addicts in February 1955. At the same time “C” Hall, the female prison and the hospital in the local prison on Singapore Island were gazetted as opium treatment centres, since addicts were kept there.

The Advisory Committee is an important link in this whole experiment. The offender, while on remand, is checked with a view to finding out the possibilities of rehabilitation. The reports of the medical and rehabilitation officers are laid before the Advisory Committee, consisting of the superintendent and medical officer of the Opium Treatment Centre and a rehabilitation officer. If it is found necessary that the offenders would benefit by admission to the centre, the Committee makes a recommendation accordingly to the magistrate, who, if he concurs, orders the addict’s detention in the centre for an undetermined period not exceeding twelve months. Otherwise, the offender is sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. Sentences under the existing legislation are mandatory, but there is an amendment being considered to provide for sentences to be discretionary.

The Advisory Committee considers a person’s suitability for treatment from the following aspects:
1. Age limit : 50 years, in general, but many cases are accepted up to the age of 55.
2. Disease : Active cases of organic disease, etc., are not accepted.
3. General physical condition : Chronic debility and extreme emaciation may be causes of rejection.
4. Length of addiction : Preference is given to more recent addicts.
5. Environment : If the addict is socially or thoroughly an undesirable character, he may be rejected for treatment.

The Opium Treatment Centre at St. John’s Island consists of twelve huts. They are used as follows: carpenters’ workshop, tailors’ workshop and laundry, rattan workshop, hospital, office and store, and attendants’ barracks. The remaining six huts have accommodation for inmates. (The maximum capacity of each hut is forty beds.)

On admission after withdrawal treatment, which is usually completed within three weeks in the remand prison on Singapore Island, the addict is interviewed by the superintendent, and provided with clothing, bedding, etc., all his personal belongings being taken from him. He is seen by a medical officer, either on admission or on the following morning. He is admitted to the sick bay, where he is detained for a minimum period of a week, and given extra food, including milk and eggs. At the end of the week, he is again seen by the medical officer, and if found fit for light duty is given a choice of acquiring knowledge and skill in several different trades, including carpentry, tailoring, rattan work, cooking, gardening and laundering.

While in the centre, the addicts are given the usual prison diet plus an extra 4 oz. of rice or wheat. If it is considered that any inmate should have additional nourishment such as eggs or milk – he is re-admitted to the sick bay. It is interesting to note that in only one case has there been a failure to gain weight during the period of detention. The average weight gained has been 13 lb.

It has been found that the inmates in the centre are very happy to be employed, and there have been few, if any, breaches of discipline. The rehabilitation officers visit the centre regularly, and keep in touch with each individual’s progress.

Though the addict is sentenced, as a rule, to be detained for a period of twelve months, it has been found that most of the inmates are fit to be released after a period of from six to seven months; and it has been noted that at the end of this period most of them realize that the addiction has gone. The rehabilitation officer ensures that they have employment waiting for them on release. Subsequent follow-up has shown that, in the case of skilled labourers, the majority stay in the employment which has been secured for them, and though the general trend is for unskilled labour to remain in employment, many change their jobs. However, the limited statistics so far available do not permit any firm conclusions. All business firms and branches of the services have been most sympathetic in taking the former addict employees back on the recommendation of the rehabilitation officers. There has been no instance of a firm’s refusing to re-employ such persons on discharge.

At the outset, it was considered that probably fifty per cent of the addicts appearing before the Advisory Committee might be found suitable for admission to the centre. So far, 396 males and 16 females have been released on licence, and the rehabilitation officers visit them regularly. There have been six known cases of relapse among the males, but the period is as yet too short for any conclusion to be drawn.

The follow-up of the released addict provides a problem. After a period of about three months or so all the addicts are referred to the medical officer for a check-up. It is not easy to diagnose a relapse. In most cases, however, addicts were able to keep away from the drug for a varying period of time; relapses if they do occur, generally come after a period of a few months, by which time the licence has expired, and past addicts are no longer obliged to attend for check-up. However, a number of patients do present themselves, long before their turn is due, seeking medical advice on minor complaints, and in some cases for help in the matter of finding work. A few have brought their personal and family problems to the doctor, and there have been a few who brought their addict companions for help or for admission as volunteers to the centre.

From the inception of this rehabilitative centre up to the end of 1956, a total of 425 patients have undergone rehabilitation and have been discharged. Out of all these, six persons were arrested a second time on a charge of possession of prepared opium or of possession of opium-smoking utensils. This does not mean that only 6 out of the 425 had relapsed into opium addiction. At the present time, it is not possible to make any exact estimate of the number who, having undergone treatment, have completely freed themselves from addiction. There is, however, ample evidence to suggest that the present procedure is well worth while.It has now been decided under section 1 (2) of the Dangerous Drugs (Temporary Provisions) Ordinance (cap. 138) to extend the operation of the ordinance until 8 February 1958. This will mean that the centre will run for at least another year. During 1956, the centre continued to prove its value. Many tributes have been paid to the establishment, including one from the World Health Organization.

The question of whether the centre should be made permanent and be expanded to provide for all opium addicts is being examined in some detail, and it is hoped that it will be possible to reach a decision within six months. The representations made by the Chinese Advisory Committee will be borne in mind while the review is being made.

The approximate cost of an accommodation hut for forty persons is 25,000 Malayan dollars, and as there are at present twelve such huts at the centre; the estimated cost of accommodation blocks is 300,000 Malayan dollars.