Parting Glances: the cylinder on Pearl’s Hill

2 05 2019

A last look at Pearl Bank Apartments, a Chinatown landmark and a celebrated modern building.


The time has come to bid farewell to Pearl Bank Apartments, that cylinder-shaped apartment block sticking right out – perhaps like the proverbial sore thumb – of the southern slope of Pearl’s Hill. Sold to us here in Singapore Southeast Asia’s tallest residential building during its construction, it is thought of as a marvel of innovative design in spite of a rather unpretentious appearance. Emptied of its residents, it now awaits its eventual demolition; having been sold in February 2018 in the collective sale wave that threatens to rid Singapore of its Modern post-independence architectural icons. CapitaLand, the developer behind the purchase, will be replacing the block with a new development that with close to 800 units (compared to 288 units currently).

The residential block, photographed in 2014.

Pearl Bank Apratment’s development came as part of a post-independence urban renewal effort. Involving the sale of land to private firms for development, which in Pearl Bank’s case was for the high-density housing for the middle class. The project, which was to have been completed in 1974 with construction having commenced in mid-1970, ran into several difficulties. A shortage of construction materials and labour, as well as several fatal worksite accidents, saw to the project being completed only after a delay of about two years.

An advertisement in 1976.

After the completion of the project in 1976, its developer, Hock Seng Enterprises, ran into financial difficulties and was placed into receivership in August 1978. This prompted the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to step in to purchase all eight of the block’s penthouses in 1979. The 4,000+ sq. ft. penthouses (the area included a 1,000 sq. ft. roof terrace) were resold to Civil Servants and Statutory Board officers at a price of $214,000 for an intermediate unit, and $217,000 for the corner unit – a steal even at the prices of the day!

A view from one of the penthouse units.

The 38-storey apartment block also saw problems with its lifts and for over a month in 1978, only two were in working order. Another incident that imvolved the lifts occurred in November 1986 when a metal chain of one of the lifts fell a hundred metres, crashing through the top of its cabin. It was quite fortunate that there was no one in the lift during the late night incident. The building developed a host of other problems as it aged, wearing an increasingly worn and tired appearance over time. Even so, it was still one to marvel at and one that had photographers especially excited.

Built on a C-shaped plan, a slit in the cylinder provided light and ventilation. The inside of this cee is where the complex nature of the building’s layout becomes apparent, as does its charm. Common corridors provide correspondence across the split-level apartment entrances as well as to each apartment’s secondary exits via staircases appended to the inner curve. The apartments are a joy in themselves, woven into one another across the different levels like interlocking pieces of a three-diemnsional puzzle. The result is joyous a mix of two, three and four bedroom apartments.

There have been quite a few voices lent in support of conserving the building and other post-independence architectural icons, which even if not for their architectural merit, represent a coming of age for the local architectural community and a break away from the colonial mould. Several proposals have been tabled previously to conserve the building, including one by one of its architects, Mr Tan Cheng Siong and another by the Management Corporation Strata Title Council.

Part of the waste disposal system.

That sentiment is however not necessary shared by all and the sites central location and view that it offers, does mean that the site’s development potential cannot be ignored. Among its long-term residents, a few would have welcomed the opportunity to cash in. Those occupying units on the lower floors might have had such thoughts. It seems that it was increasingly becoming less pleasant to live in some of the lower units due to choked pipes. One could also not miss the stench emanating from the rubbish disposal system.

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The view from a penthouse roof terrace.

Architectural or even historical perspectives aside, the person-on-the-street would probably not get too sentimental over the loss of Pearl Bank Apartments. Unlike the old National Library, the National Theatre or the old National Stadium in which memories of many more were made, there would have been little opportunity provided to most to interact or get close enough to appreciate the building.

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A last reflection.

All eyes I suppose are now on CapitaLand, to see what in terms of the site’s heritage –  if anything – would be retained. Based on noises being made online, the launch of the project is due in 2H 2019.


More views:


 

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Parting glances: the “mini cantonment” with a view

25 09 2018

The time has come to bid farewell to Normanton Park, a housing estate with a military past in more ways than one. Built on part of the site of the Admiralty’s former Normanton Oil Depot, the estate initially housed regular military officers and their families in an attempt to build camaraderie.

HDB built private estate with a view – Normanton Park.

Completed in late 1977, Normanton Park offered a total of 488 “low-cost” housing units; 440 of which were in its five 23-storey high point-blocks. Another 48 were found in eight 3-storey walk-up apartment blocks. Prices ranged from $36,500 to $39,500 for the 122 square metre point-block units, which were laid out in the same fashion as HDB 5-room point-block flats of the mid-1970s). The larger 153 square metre walk-up apartments were sold at $65,000. These were offered to regular officers of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) with the thought that a cantonment like environment could be created to foster bonding among military officers in the same way officers’ messes did for the British military and also bring wives and families of military officers together.

Residents are in the midst of moving out (one of the eight 3-storey walk up apartment blocks is seen in the background).

Designed and built by the HDB, the estate was also provided with a community hall, space for a supermarket and kindergarten, a multi-storey car-park and recreational facilities such as a swimming pool and tennis courts. It was privatised in 1993 and that was the point when curbs on the sales of its units to non-military personnel were lifted. What made it an attractive prospect was its location and the wonderful views that the estate’s point-blocks offered of the lush green spaces around Alexandra Park and Kent Ridge.  It was sold under a collective-sale arrangement a year ago. Its residents have begun the exodus out of the estate with some saying goodbye to four decades of memories.

The swimming pool.

Plaque

Plaque unveiled by Dr Goh Keng Swee at the official opening of Normanton Park in April 1978 – being removed for safekeeping (photo: courtesy of a resident).


Parting glances …

Playground with the initials of the Normanton Park Residents Association (N.P.R.A.).

The entrance to Normanton Park.


Goodbye….Normanton Park (1978 – 2018) – a video made by an ex-resident


The Admiralty’s Normanton (Oil Fuel) Depot

The Normanton Oil Depot was set up on the grounds of Normanton Barracks and a rifle range in the 1920s to serve as fleet fuel reserves, just as the Naval Base was being established in the north of the island. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore. This was to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy.

The Admiralty’s burning Normanton Fuel Oil Depot. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy (photo: Queenstown – My Community).

What could be remnants of the Oil Depot …

What may have been a valve pit belonging to the oil depot. Two can be found on the grounds of Normanton Park and one just beyond the perimeter fence.

 

A peek into the pit.

Another look inside.

 






Parting Glances: the boxing gym at Farrer Park

30 04 2018

The Farrer Park Boxing Gym, the home of Singapore boxing and its stable, is hanging up it gloves after half a century. Its premises, which it moved into in 1968 after another had burned down, has long been a very recognisable fixture that stood along the famous playing fields at Farrer Park; it does in fact date back to Farrer Park’s pre-playing fields days when the grounds were put to use as a horse racing course, having originally been been built as a horse stable.

Farrer Park Boxing Gym’s gloves are being hung up.

The gym, which also served as the home of the Singapore Amateur Boxing Association (SABA), would have been where Syed Abdul Kadir – Singapore’s first Commonwealth Games Boxing medallist and the only boxer to have represented Singapore at the Olympics, trained at in the lead up to his participation in the international events. Besides bringing a chapter in Singapore boxing to an end, the closure of the gym also spells the start of a what would eventually be a complete disconnection of Farrer Park from its sporting roots. The grounds, which Sports Singapore will have to give up by 2020, would eventually be redeveloped as a residential site.

A last reflection – the building which houses the gym was built as a horse stable for the Race Course.

The gym was opened in 1968 after its previous premises burned down.

Part of the furniture – a bench that has been with the gym since 1968.

A final training session at the gym.

Final punches being thrown.

A peak inside the gym – the walls between blue pillars were not part of the original horse stable structure.

Trainees from the final training session with Coach Bala – who is also the Secretary of SABA.

Coach Bala closing up for what may be the final time.


Farrer Park

Named in honour of Mr Roland John Farrer, who presided over the Municipal Commission from 1919 to 1931and had played a key role in procuring the former racing ground of the Singapore Turf Club for the Singapore Improvement Trust, much of the grounds at Farrer Park was converted into much needed sporting grounds as part of a drive by the Commission to provide public sporting facilities for the fast growing municipality in the 1920s and 1930s. This drive, motivated by a growing awareness of the benefits “wholesome sport” to the health and well-being of the working classes, also saw Singapore’s first public swimming pool built at Mount Emily (see: A Short History of Public Swimming Pools in Singapore).

As the race course, which was established in 1843, the grounds also played host to other sporting pursuits including golf and polo. It was also where the first aeroplane seen in Singapore, took off and landed on 16 March 1911. The plane, a Bristol Boxkite bi-plane, was piloted by French aviator Josef Christiaens. Christiaens was granted the rights for distribution of the Colonial Aeroplane Company’s aircraft in the region and required the help of the Royal Engineers to assemble the plane for the demonstration flight.

As sporting grounds Farrer Park – with its 8 football pitches – had also a strong connection with football. Besides being a venue for many matches, its grounds were also where coaching workshops and training sessions were held. The late great Uncle Choo or Choo Seng Quee, one of Singapore football’s best loved coaches, was once a fixture, together with many household names such as the likes of Dollah Kassim, the Quah brothers and Fandi Ahmad, to name a few.

Heather Siddons (Merican) at an Inter Schools Athletics Meet at Farrer Park in 1967 (source: National Archives Online).

Farrer Park was also a name associated with school sports meets – many of which took place at Farrer Park Stadium / Athletic Centre. The centre, which opened in 1957 at the northern end of Farrer Park (straddling Gloucester Road around where Blocks 11 and 12 are today), had a simple grandstand added along with a bitumen track (originally cinder) added in for the second meeting of the Malaysian Amateur Athletic Union in July 1965. The stadium was also were hockey matches were held and where Farrer Park United – a now defunct football club through the ranks of which the likes of Malek Awab rose – played its home matches at from 1975.

Many will also remember Farrer Park for its food stalls at Northumberland Road – across from where the SIT built flats were. Two stalls that I recall were one selling one of the best Indian Mee Siam around and a drinks stall run by a Chinese lady that served bandung with bits of jelly in it.

Farrer Park also became camp for the 2nd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (2SIR) in 1966. Having returned from a deployment in Sabah in August 1965 as part of the Malaysian Armed Forces with their base at Ulu Pandan Road (Camp Temasek) still occupied by a Malaysian unit still based here, the unit made Farrer Park a temporary home with tents pitched on the sports fields (more at this link).

Three storey blocks of SIT Flats being built across Northumberland Road from the playing fields (source: National Archives Online).

A more recent sporting introduction to Farrer Park – Frisbee.

Football training – long associated with Farrer Park.

The boxing gym with a view towards the are where the Farrer Park Stadium was.






The passing of an old neighbourhood

5 04 2018

Old HDB neighbourhoods are a joy. Their many reminders of a gentler age, some found in old shops and kopitiams in which time seems to have left well behind, extend a welcome clearly absent in the brave new that modern Singapore has become. Sadly, it won’t be long before modernity catches up on these places. Our national obsession with renewal does mean that it will only be a question of when that these spaces will forever be lost.

One old neighbourhood experiencing a slow death by renewal is Tanglin Halt. Built in the early 1960s, its old flats – among the first that the HDB built – have already begun to make way for the new. Even before this several of the neighbourhood’s landmarks were already lost. These included the rather iconic blue city gas holder and the factories that were home to several household names such as Setron. Many of the factories, which provided the neighbourhood’s folk with employment, went in the 1990s at the end of the sites’ respective leases.  A cluster of towering new flats now mark the neighbourhood. Used in part to house the first residents displaced by the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in the neighbourhood, the cluster has also introduced a dash of modernity to the old neighbourhood with modern shops, an air-conditioned food court, and a supermarket.  The flats that were affected by SERS, referred to collectively as the “Chap Lau Chu“, were only very recently demolished with a new batch of flats soon to fill the space .

Renewal, even gradual, is taking its toll on the businesses housed in the neighbourhood centre. Many of the surviving businesses, with the displacement of their customer base, have been left with little motivation to continue operating. A recent casualty was a provision shop by the name of Thin Huat, which closed its doors for good over the weekend. Having been set up 1964 – 54 years ago – Thin Huat is one of the neighbourhood’s oldest businesses. That makes it especially sad to see it go.

Thin Huat – a few days before its closure.

Empty shelves and a photograph of its proprietor and his wife.

 





Normal service resumes at Novena

30 09 2017

The long awaited reopening of Novena Church, after a three-year closure for the its impressive new church building, was greeted by a crowd of several thousands worshippers at its first mass celebrated at 6.30 pm yesterday. A queue to enter the church had formed some three hours before the church was due to open its at 4.30 pm and by 4.45 pm, the 1,500 seat capacity church was already filled.

A glimpse at the insides of the new church.

The celebration of the first mass at the church comes just over three years since the last mass was celebrated in the old church on 28 September 2014. The old church was closed from October of that year with masses held at SJI Junior and Novena services held at the Church of the Risen Christ in Toa Payoh in the interim. The popular Novena services, which have long coloured Saturdays along the stretch of Thomson Road at which the church is located, resumes today with and its first Sunday masses will be held tomorrow.


Mass and Novena Service Times


Photographs from the first mass

A first glimpse of the new next to the old.

Stairway to heaven.

The 1500 seat capacity new church building was filled in a matter of minutes.

And within 15 minutes of opening, the old section of the church was also filled.

A section of the crowd.

Stained glass windows.

The new church’s first mass, dedicated to the Archangels, begins at 6.30 pm.

The first sermon.

The choir.

The crowd waiting to get in to see the new church.





Parting Glances: Hup Lee Kopitiam

23 08 2017

Just like the remnants of Robinson Petang flea market at Sungei Road, just a stone’s throw away, the old world Hup Lee kopitiam at Jalan Besar was a reminder of a Singapore that has all but been consigned to the past. Its closing, just this week, just over a month after the decades old flea market was shut for good, is perhaps no surprise; the old coffeeshop’s fortunes were very much tied to the flea market from which it drew quite a fair proportion of its patrons.

Going back to the 1950s, Hup Lee was one of a rare breed of old-world coffee shops in which time seemed to have stood very still. The touch of nostalgia that its provided was a huge draw. An oasis in the desert of modernity that Singapore has become, its closure will be mourned by those for whom Singapore has moved much, much too fast.

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The small crowd that gathered at Hup Lee on its last day of business on 21 August 2017.

The last pot of coffee.

Washing up for the last time.

A customer having the very last cup of coffee that was served, as the coffee shop emptied just after 8 pm on Monday.

Closed for business.

A last look.

Gates closed for good.

The morning after.





Last rites, Sungei Road and the soul of Singapore

11 07 2017

The 10th of July, marked not just the final chapter for Sungei Road, but also for the generations of traders who once coloured the streets of Singapore. The closure of the popular and well-known flea market, also known as Thieves Market and Robinson Petang, saw what are technically Singapore’s last street hawkers moved off the streets. While hope for a new beginning for the collection of mostly small second-hand goods traders does exist, their continued existence is under threat by the fact they would now be scattered across town.

Hope also lies in an initiative by the President of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, Mr Koh Ah Koon, which was announced at a farewell of sorts organised for the market. Mr Koh hopes to resurrect the market on the sixth floor car park of Golden Mile Tower as early as on Saturday 15th July, 2017. Not all the traders however are making the move due to cost considerations and the location. There is also a chance that the move may not even be allowed to happen. Approval would be needed as it would involve a change in usage of a parking space. Whatever will be, the market as we knew it, will no longer be the one we came to know. The passing of this imperfect world modern Singapore has no place for, sees not just the loss of a place in the hearts of many of us, but also the loss of one of last places in which the soul of old and gentle Singapore could still be found.

Crowds were on hand to witness Sungei Road’s final moments.

Some traders decided to pack up early.

A lion dance to bid farewell.

Mr Koh Ah Koon, President of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods speaks to members of the media.

The now famous Mr Kulasekaran Ramiah.

An emotional goodbye.

A final sale.

Packing up for the very last time.

Enforcement wardens move in – must say they were generally helpful and friendly.

All packed and ready to go.

Some made a quicker exit.

A last ride.

The final walk.

The closure of the flea market leaves Singapore like a head without body (and soul).

The cleaners are quickly sent in.

The closure gives many of the traders a feeling of being alone in the darkness.