One hundred steps to Heaven

1 03 2011

If heaven was to be a place in Singapore, there would probably not be a better candidate for a suitable location than the Mount Sophia that previously existed. These days of course, Mount Sophia is associated more with sought after high-rise residential units in a prime location close to the heart of the city. However, back in the early part of the 20th century, it must certainly have been a truly magical and heavenly place, dominated by the magnificent Eu Villa that commanded a view of much of the surrounding areas of the fast growing city that lay on the areas some 100 feet below, and the many other grand bungalows and mansions, paticularly around Adis and Wilkie Roads. By the time I was going to school in Bras Basah Road and wandering curiously around the area, many of the heavenly places were still around, albeit in dilapidated condition – and mostly I guess crumbling to a point that it would have taken a monumental effort to preserve them. Still one could easily imagine how grand the area, which seemed a world apart from the rough and tumble of the mixed residential and commercial districts that lay below, would have been.

An aerial view of Mount Sophia and the surrounding area in the 1960s. It is easy to see why the well heeled would choose to build their magnificent mansions on the geographical feature which commanded an excellent view of the area around it. The Cathay Building can be seen on the south of Mount Sophia and the castle like Eu Villa to the top and right of it. The Istana and its grounds, which together with Mount Sophia and adjoining Mount Emily were part of Charles Robert Prinsep's huge nutmeg plantation can be seen on the left of the photo (Photo Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

I was fortunate to be able to have seen all that I guess and place myself in that magical world, then accessible either via Sophia Road or by the so-called one hundred steps up from Handy Road. Given the choice of access options, the adventurous schoolboy that I was would certainly have chosen the latter route – after all, it was a shortcut we occasionally took to get to Plaza Singapura, then not accessible through Handy Road, which would involve climbing into the upper level of the car park at Plaza Singapore right next to western slopes of Mount Sophia, where Yaohan and a popular hangout for teens then, the Yamaha Music School run Do Re Mi cafe, beckoned. These days, much of that magic that I felt back then, is absent, with the manisons, most of which went in the 1980s and 1990s, with Eu Villa itself being demolished in 1981 after being sold by the Eu family for a princely sum of S$ 8.19M in 1973 to a property development company, having given way to a mess of monstrous apartment blocks, and it’s difficult to return to that magical world that I once wandered around.

The fairy-tale like Eu Villa, once the home of Eu Tong Sen. It was built in 1915 at a cost of S$1M on the site of Adis Lodge which Eu had purchase from Nissim Nissim Adis, the owner of the Grand Hotel de L'Europe in 1912.

I had an opportunity to do just that, return to the magical world that is, taking a walk with the National Library Board around the area, and trying to transport not just myself, but also a group of 30 participants to that world that I once knew. It was good to have on board two ladies who attended two of the schools in the area, who were able to share their experiences as well of going to Nan Hwa Girls’ School and Methodist Girls School (MGS). Both described ascending the one hundered steps to get to their schools, describing how it rose precariously up the steep slope from Handy Road with no railings to speak of and the steps being uneven in height – far different from the reconstructed steps in the vicinity of the original we see today. The ex MGS girl described how her schoolmates and her would race down the steps … something I am sure many would have not been able to resist in impetuosity of youth. We also confirmed that there were actually 100 steps – something I never thought of trying to establish in the many occasions on which I ascended the steps.

The one hundred steps offered a short cut for the adventurous to Plaza Singapura (seen here in its very early days - source: http://www.picas.gov.nhb.sg).

The walk started with a short introduction at the library, after which we were transported to the magical hill not by the one hundred steps, but by air-conditioned coach to the top of Mount Emily, I guess in keeping with the new age. What we saw were some remnants of there area that I loved, including the former Mount Emily Girls’ home which for a while was used as the Japanese Consulate prior to the war, becoming a halfway house for underage street prostitutes before becoming the girls’ home in 1969 and later the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s. There was also the location of the first public swimming pool in Singapore, built on the site of the waterworks on Mount Emily, a pool that I visited in my younger days, being one of my father’s favourite pools, across from which we could see the hoardings surrounding the former bungalow of the late Major Derrick Coupland who passed away in 1991. Major Coupland was well known as a World War II veteran and the President of the Ex-Services Association heading it for some 20 years prior to his death from bone cancer in June 1991. I understand from a reader that the bungalow has been left empty since and the deterioration from 20 years of abandonment was evident before the hoardings came up some time at the end of last year – I suppose that the building is being prepared for demolition right at this moment.

The hoardings havve come up around the crumbling former residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

From the original coat of arms, used during the years of self-govenrment that can be seen on the structure at the entrance to Mount Emily Park, we made our way down Wilkie Road, past the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple. The current temple with its distinctive white dome, is a later one, built in 1983, next to an old house which as a plaque indicates, was purchased in 1932 (I was told from a Jewish gentleman), and originally housed the temple. Most of the magnificent mansions, including one owned by M J Nassim, that lined Wilkie Road have been replaced by apartment blocks … one that remains is the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home at 81 Wilkie Road which is described in a previous post.

Wilkie Road used to be lined with magnificent mansions including one that still stands - the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, left by the late Abdullah Shooker, a Baghdadi Jew who died during internment by the Japanese in 1942, to the Jewish community.

Further down Wilkie Road, the participants were introduced to the Sophia Flats, once the home of the illustrious F J Benjamin, across from which we could once get a glimpse of the roofs of the magical Eu Villa over a retaining wall which marked the edge of the table on which the villa and its huge grounds once stood. Sadly the wall has come down, perhaps the last reminder of the villa that was left, along with the table which is being levelled for what is probably a commercial/residential project.

And the wall came tumbling down ... the last reminder of Eu Villa comes down - a retaining wall that marked the edge of the table of land on which the villa once stood (as seen in January 2011).

The last bit of the wall next to Peace Centre on Sophia Road.

At the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads, the excited chatter of a former student of Nan Hwa Girl’s School was heard, as she reminisced about her schooldays. The building which was completed in 1941, before being used by the Japanese during the war and the British forces after before being returned to Nan Hwa in 1947, is now used as a student hostel – and as one participant on the walk pointed out, the flag poles in front of the basketball courts which also served as an assembly area were still very much in evidence. Besides this, we learnt of a popular ice-kacang stall that both the girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised after school which was at the corner opposite Nan Hwa.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' High School at the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads.

A former student at Nan Hwa Girls' School sharing her experiences of going to school outside the former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The corner of Adis Road and Sophia Road at which the ice kacang stall that both girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised, was located.

Before we hit the new one hundred steps, we stopped by the Art Deco styled building which housed San Shan Public School which was built in the 1950s by the Foochow Association, which ran the school up to the 1970s when the running of it was handed to the Ministry of Education. The school after moving from its Mount Sophia premises in the 1980s has stopped functioning. Next was the former Trinity Theological College which was established in 1948. The cluster of buildings that belonged to the college including the church with the distinctive roof shaped to the Chinese character for people, 人 (Ren), were built in the 1960s. The college moved in the 1990s to its current location along Upper Bukit Timah Road – and the roof of the church there is identical to the one on Mount Sophia. Next to the college, the cluster of buildings (now Old School) that house MGS still stands. The former pupil of MGS spoke of how she could see the gardens of Eu Villa from her class window, and how the classes were organised, C being the best class and A for the weakest students, of the three classes that each form had in the 1960s.

A view of the former MGS.

From the hundred steps down, we made our way to the corner of what used to be Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah Road, now dominated by another monstrous piece of architecture which did not agree with most of the participants – one remarked that it “stuck out like a sore thumb”. Where that building which is the School of the Arts (SOTA) stand, there was what had been Dhoby Ghaut, gone as a road that carried the name in an area that once was used by the Indian Dhobis to gain access to the fresh water stream that has since become the Stamford Canal. What survives of that Dhoby Ghaut which hold memories of the row of shops which included the Red Sea Aquarium and an A&W outlet that I frequented as a schoolboy and another row of houses up behind on Kirk Terrace which included a Sikh temple, is only the name of the MRT station in the vicinity.

The row of shops at Dhoby Ghaut next to Cathay Building was where the Red Sea Aquarium as well as the A&W was. Today the SOTA building stands on top of the area where Dhoby Ghaut was (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

We then walked up Prinsep Street, named after Charles Robert Prinsep, the owner of the nutmeg plantation which once included Mount Emily, Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline and extended to the Istana grounds (100 acres were purchased in 1867 for the Governor’s House which became the Istana). There were suggestions that the three mounts were named after three daughters of Prinsep, but what is more likely was that when Prinsep purchased the land, Mount Sophia (which appears earlier as Bukit Selegi) would have already been named after the second wife of Raffles, modern Singapore’s founder, Sophia Hull, and if anything, Prinsep named the two adjoining hills after two other daughters, having been part of the former estate of Raffles’ brother-in-law and Singapore’s first Master Attendant, Captain Flint.

Kirk Terrace over Dhoby Ghaut (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was then a leisurely stroll back to the library via Middle Road, where we stopped by the site of the former POSB headquarters facing Prinsep Street and the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) facing Bencoolen Street, where Sunshine Plaza stands, but not before introducing the former Tiger Balm Building, the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road hospital. At Sunshine Plaza, we saw a few signcraft shops – remnants of those that featured in the area when demand for vehicle number plates existed due to the presence of the ROV in the vicinity. Then it was past the former Middle Road Church (now Sculpture Square), used as a motor workshop when I went to school in the area in the 1970s, and the former St. Anthony’s Convent, before hitting the site of the former Queen of the Mooncakes (Empress Hotel) – our destination where the Central Library building now stands.

Middle Road once featured sign craft shops serving the demand from the nearby ROV, including Rainbow Signs which I well remember from passing many times on the bus home from school (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was the end of a rather enjoyable walk for me, and I hope the participants had as good a time as I had. Before what was left of the participants dispersed, there was still time to exchange a story, one about the sighting of an Orang Minyak (translated from Malay as “Oily Man” – one that is said to be cursed to an existence as an dark oil coated being that possesses supernatural powers, but more likely as a participant Jeff pointed out, was a man coated in oil to ensure a smooth getaway), reputed as one that terrorises the fairer sex. I had heard about one which was reportedly known to lurk in the compound of St. Joseph’s Church across Victoria Street, through a reader Greg Lim, who lived in Holloway Lane in the 1950s. My mother who boarded at St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s could not confirm this, but did mentioned that there were rumours of one lurking in the stairwell. Jeff, who himself lived on nearby Cashin Street in the 1950s confirmed that there was indeed sightings reported, and he was in one of the crowds that had gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the Orang Minyak. Another participant, the mother of Ms Thiru (who is with the NLB and organised the walk), also confirmed that she was aware of the story. It was certainly an interesting end to the walk, one that took a little longer than anticipated, but one that was thoroughly enjoyable.

The Empress Hotel at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street which was demolished in 1985.

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Back to school in many ways …

9 08 2010

It was back to school for some of my old schoolmates and me yesterday. With our old school building as a focal point, we wandered around much of the area we might have in the all whites of our school uniform all those years ago, when the area was so different from what it is today. It was for us a journey not just back in time, but one in which we were able to rediscover and catch up with some of the parts of Singapore around our old school grounds that we might have once been familiar with, but have since forgotten.

The old school building served as our focal point on a walk to rediscover the areas we were once familiar with.

The walk first took us down Waterloo Street, past the mansions and buildings of old, looking grander than they would have when we were in school. Much has changed since then, memories of what had been around flooded back: the hole-in-the-wall “mama” shop around the corner of Bras Basah Road, where boys would have obtained many items including banned cigarettes came to mind; the infamous toilet block across the street of which the then sealed second level we were given to believe was used as a Japanese torture chamber …

A window in the Sculpture Square complex. Wandering around the old church building that was used as a motor workshop when we were in school opened up a window into past and present.

A vice at Sculpture Square ... perhaps a reminder of what it once had been used as ...

Arriving at what is now Sculpture Square, of which the former Middle Road Church building which during our days as schoolboys was used as a motor workshop, we stumbled upon Ngim Kum Thong’s world of Deconstruction, Destruction and Destination, in a rather interesting exhibition of contemporary art. Ngim has apparently worked with the highly regarded educator and sculptor, the late Brother Joseph McNally, founder of the LA SALLE College of the Arts and someone who as schoolboys we were very fond of, having been associated with the La Salle brothers who ran the La Salle Christian Brothers’ Schools of which St. Joseph’s Institution was a part of.  The first impression I had was that the artist’s theme seemed a little strange as most would focus on creation rather than on destruction, but wandering through the exhibits with the artist himself as a guide, one wonders if he is indeed actually making sense of how he sees the world we live in. One particular exhibit caught my attention, the Third Hand that perhaps is the unseen force that controls our lives … we “live” looking in once direction and face “evil” looking from the other … “evil” being “live” spelt backwards. Looking at it, maybe the artist is correct in his observation of things around, the inevitability of deconstruction and destruction in the destination of all that we create, in how evil can be seen to dominate how we live … still, it is all a little too abstract for me …


Deconstruction, destruction and destination ... the inevitability of life?


Evil in the eyes of the artist ...

The potential world of knowledge that is in the internet ... and what it

A third hand in our lives? We "live" and looking back ... "evil"?

Moving further, past Middle Road to the Camera Hospital at Sunshine Plaza which we used to see around Bencoolen Street where we were greeted by the bodies of old cameras that perhaps were reminiscent of those we would have been familiar with as schoolboys, we talked about what had once been there … the old Registry of Vehicles and Post Office Savings Bank headquarters and the host of sign makers we would see across the street. We then moved on to Prinsep Street … down to the newly opened LaSalle College of the Arts on the new aptly named McNally Street, unique in the sense of its clean appearance on the outsides with shape and form expressed within the clean exterior … the college is perhaps what links the past … being boys from a school that is associated with the name and the founder, the present in the sense of our brush with the works of Ngim, a student of Brother McNally, and the future … being the future that the college represents for the arts in Singapore.

LaSalle College of the Arts on McNally Street.

With the intention to make our way to the new Thieves Market near Sungei Road, close to where the original Thieves Market would have been on Sungei Road, we wandered past Albert Mall at the end of Waterloo Street. This section of Waterloo Street, now a pedestrian mall, is perhaps one of the most delightful corners of Singapore that I have stumbled upon. Crawling with devotees to the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Sri Krishnan Temple, street vendors and many offering services of all kinds fill the streets along with street performers, adding colour and life to the mall … a verve that is missing in much of Singapore these days.

The walk to Thieves Market took us past Albert Mall at the end of Waterloo Street.

Seen on Albert Mall, a British man who plies his trade as a traditional Chinese fortune teller ...

... and is apparently popular with the locals ...

Floral offerings are a colourful sight outside the well attended Sri Krishnan and Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temples on Waterloo Street.

Many services are also offered along the mall.


See along Albert Mall ...

Having made our way pass the mall, we took a route along the old Sungei Road, much less foul smelling than it would have been back in our schooldays towards the mentioned Thieves Market, a flea market which in the days as a schoolboy, had also been referred to by many names such as “Robinson Petang” or literally “Afternoon Robinson” (with reference to the popular Robinson’s Department Store where one could shop for just about anything), popularly amongst us schoolboys as “Sungei Road” and of course “Thieves Market” (with reference to the contraband and stolen goods that were once thought to have been sold there). That was where we could then get just about anything … my mother was fond of visiting to buy large bottles which she could then mosaic and many other used items for arts and craft which she taught in school … later in life, it was where I could get our coveralls for my stints in shipyards required by the course of study that I was doing at the Polytechnic. These days, I am told there are other thieves to be careful of … petty thefts such as pickpocketing is apparently common there. Looking at the range and quality of items on offer there, perhaps it is one place that I would give a miss in future … Next, it was across Jalan Besar … which will be covered in another post to follow …

The joke back in the days when we were schoolboys was that if you ever had a bicycle stolen ... you would be able to find it being sold at Thieves Market ... one wonders if it may still be the case today ...

Laser Discs on sale ... from not too distant a past ... but forgotten all the same.

A deal that would blow you away!





Park Lane, Mayfair and Hyde Park

29 04 2010

The mention of Park Lane and Mayfair would bring memories of the many evenings spent in my childhood playing the board game of Monopoly with the family. The two properties on the Monopoly board are of course the most expensive and sought after, guaranteed to give one an excellent chance of winning the game. Having acquired the game at Marican and Sons which was located along East Coast Road when I was maybe six or seven, it was was one of those things I were grateful to have as a child, as it was able to keep me entertained in a time when the world that did not have the distractions that the world today brings to her children. It was perhaps my favourite game, as it was one which maybe depended less on skill and age for a fair chance of winning.

It was only later in life, that I would associate Mayfair and Park Lane with the exclusive district in London of the same name. Mayfair bounded by Oxford Street to the North, Regent Street to the East, Piccadilly and Pall Mall to the South and Park Lane to the West, would be an area where I would often find myself wandering around during a sojourn in London in 1990, being close to Hyde Park (Park Lane runs along the eastern boundary of Hyde Park) and Speaker’s Corner. Well before I got to wander around the streets of London, we did have a Mayfair, Park Lane and even a Hyde Park here, close to the area where I went to school, not perhaps the exclusive areas that the parts of London they were named after, but names that were familiar to many nonetheless. We had the Mayfair Hotel along Armenian Street, Park Lane Shopping Mall built in the late 1970s, and Hyde Park Café.

The Mayfair Hotel by the time I was growing up, had been a hotel that had seen better times. Housed in an art deco styled building that has recently been refurbished along Armenian Street, the hotel opened in 1950 and was quite a decent enough establishment to play host to the BOAC (now British Airways) air crew on their stopovers. The hotel closed due to poor business in 1976, and reopened in 1979 as the New Mayfair Hotel. By that time, the hotel had become quite a sleazy place and it wasn’t too long before it closed its doors again.

The art deco building that once housed the Mayfair Hotel along Armenian Street.

A short walk from Armenian Street, down to Bras Basah Road and pass the row of now demolished shop houses that housed the well known Rendezvous Nasi Padang restaurant at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Prinsep Street and another row of now demolished shop houses that housed the Tiong Hoa Hotel along Prinsep Street, there is a quaint little row of conservation shop houses that we see today known as Prinsep Court. You will see at the end of this row, just beside what is now the Elections Department building, the Hyde Park Café. The café had its origins across Selegie Road at a shopping complex that has also seen better times, Park Lane Shopping Mall. Hyde Park Café is of course associated with a Singapore food institution, Soon Heng Fish Head Curry and was started by the daughter of the founder of Soon Heng.

The Elections Department Building along Prinsep Street.

The corner of Bras Basah Road and Prinsep Street in the 1950s (Source: national Archives of Singapore).

Selegie Road and Prinsep Street in the 1950s (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

To get to Park Lane from where Hyde Park is today, one will pass by a bright yellow coloured building at the corner of Selegie Road and Prinsep Street – this was something we always noticed from the bus – I can’t quite remember what it was used as before and I don’t quite know when it was built – perhaps one of you can enlighten me … but I am glad it still stands today as a reminder of what was once like.

The distinctive Selegie Arts Centre Building at the corner of Prinsep Street and Selegie Road.

View of Selegie Road and Prinsep Street - Park Lane Shopping Mall is on the left of the photograph.

Prinsep Court - a row of conservation shop houses.

Hyde Park Cafe.





Where the stork once visited: Prinsep Street (Rochor to Middle Roads)

29 03 2010

In taking my stroll through the streets of what once was Singapore’s Jewish Quarter, the Mahallah, I realised that among them, Prinsep Street has probably seen the most dramatic changes since the turn of the last century. Prinsep Street, spelt Princep Street in the days of the Mahallah, was named after a Charles Robert Prinsep, a descendent of a John Prinsep who featured prominently in the British East India Company. Charles Prinsep had own several nutmeg estates in the new colony and one on nearby Mount Sophia that occupied much of the land on which are now the grounds on which the Istana stands. The street is made up of two sections, the first running from Bras Basah Road, by Dhoby Ghaut up to Middle Road, and the second from Middle Road to Rochor Road. The second section is where much of the Mahallah would have been centred on, and is where perhaps the most significant changes have taken place since the early 1900s when it was part of the Mahallah.

The door of the former Salmon's Maternity Home brings some colour to an area with a colourful past.

This was the stretch of the street that perhaps made some notable contributions to healthcare in Singapore and was where the island’s first Maternal and Child Health Clinic was set up in 1923, and where one of the pioneers of private Obstetric and Gynaecological healthcare in Singapore, a Dr. S. R. Salmon had first a practice and subsequently a private maternity hospital, the Salmon’s Maternity Home. Dr. Salmon, a General Practitioner (GP), had along with Professor J. S. English, Singapore’s first Professor of Midwifery and Gynaecology and another GP, Dr. Paglar who established the Paglar Maternity and Nursing Home on which the Parkway East Hospital now stands in Joo Chiat, been attributed with raising the understanding of the need for ante-natal and post-natal care in Singapore.

Prinsep Street has undergone a transformation where there is little left of its forgotten past.

Interestingly the wonderful Art Deco styled building (there is a nice sketch of the building at this blog) that housed Dr. Salmon’s Maternity Home, set up in 1950 on 110 Prinsep Street, still stands, as a reminder of a time when ante-natal and post-natal care was very much in the hands of GPs and midwives, before specialist ante-natal and post-natal care as a norm was established in the 1960s. It is interesting to note that Dr. Salmon’s daughter Dr. Yvonne M. Salmon, had a distinguished career in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Kandang Kerbau Hospital (KKH) in a career spanning 44 years.

The former Salmon's Maternity Home at 110 Prinsep Street was built in 1950 by Dr. S. R. Salmon..

The Art Deco styled façade of the former Salmon's Maternity Home.

A reminder of what the building was once used as.

Across the street from the former Salmon’s Maternity Home, is another landmark, the very recognisable red brick building at 77 Prinsep Street, which is the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, built in 1931. The church has an interesting history, having been established in 1843 as the Malay Chapel to serve the Malay community by Rev. Benjamin Peach Keasberry. The church was subsequently known as the Straits Chinese Church to reflect its growing ministry to the Straits-born Chinese, and was where the Boys’ Brigade movement in Singapore was born. The current church building was designed by SSwan and MacLaren and built in 1931 in place of the old chapel.

The distinctive red brick Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church was built in 1931 on the site of the former Malay Chapel.

The Singapore Life Church at 144 Prinsep Street.

Much of the area that is around the churches and the former maternity home had in the early part of the twentieth century been rather run down and has been renewed, first with the construction in the late 1950s by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) the predecessor to the HDB of the blocks of flats that include the low rise blocks that are now used by the SMU for student housing, and several high rise blocks that included Albert House and Rochor House on the plots of land between Prinsep and Short Streets leading up to Rochor Road which has since been torn down, partly replaced by the interesting looking (and award winning!) LaSalle College of the Arts building with its clean black façade of aluminium and granite and open interior spaces, between a new road McNally Road, named after the founder of LaSalle College, Brother Joseph McNally, and the pedestrian mall that was the former Albert Street. The building also sits where there was once a street called Prinsep Court and before that (up to the 1950s) Veerappa Chitty Lane. The plot from Albert Street up to Rochor Road across from Sim Lim Square, which came up in 1987, is being developed into the Rochor MRT station.

The award winning LaSalle College Building with its black façade of aluminium and granite was built in 2007 and located at 1 McNally Street off Prinsep Street.

LaSalle College of the Arts as seen from Prinsep Street, stands on the grounds of what were SIT flats that were built as part of a renewal of the district in the late 1950s.

The low rise SIT flats which are now used by the SMU for student housing.

The pedestrian mall that was Albert Street between LaSalle College and a construction site for the new Rochor MRT station where Rochor House once stood.

The SIT built Rochor House was constructed in the late 1950s along with Albert House and a few low rise blocks of flats bewteen Prinsep Street and Short Street (Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rochor_House,_Aug_06.JPG).