1972, when the Concorde first flew over Singapore

28 02 2017

Singapore had a brief love affair with the Concorde. Arguably the only supersonic passenger aircraft to be successfully deployed, a London to Singapore was operated by its National airline, Singapore Airlines, in partnership with British Airways for a few years at the end of the 1970s. The aircraft’s first flight over Singapore however, goes back to 1972, a year that was especially memorable for several events.  I came across a wonderful photograph of that first flight some years back, one that in freezing the Concorde over a Singapore that in 1972 was at the cusp of its own reach for the skies, captured the lofty aspirations of the aircraft’s developers and of the city seen below it

An amazing view of Concorde 002 over the old city. The city 45 years ago, was seeing several of its first generation skyscrapers coming up. Some of the iconic buildings seen in this photograph include the former MSA (later SIA) Building, former Robina House, and a partially completed 3rd Ocean Building (now replaced by the Ocean Financial Centre) (photo souce: online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

The photo of Concorde 002 over the old city centre of Singapore during its month-long demonstration tour of the Far East in June 1972 (online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

1972 was the year I was in Primary 2. I was seven, going on eight, ten months older than the newly independent Singapore, and at an age when any machine that sped were about the coolest things on earth. I was also finding out that going to school in the afternoon was quite a chore. Unlike the morning session I was in the previous year, there was little time for distractions and TV. School days were just about tolerable only because of the football time it could provide before classes started each day and unlike the previous school year, great excitement seemed to come only away from school, and the highlight of the year would be one that I would have to skip, “ponteng” in the language used among my classmates, school for.

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals - St. John's Island School and St. Michael's School in the 1970s. 

Football was very much part of the culture at St. Michael’s School, the primary school I attended.

The buzz the Concorde created, even before it came to Singapore in June of the year, left a deep impression with the boys I kept company with and the paper planes we made featured folded-down noses that resembling the Concorde’s droop nose – even if it made they seemed less able to fly. I was fortunate to also see the real McCoy making a descent at Paya Lebar Airport, one that was much more graceful than any of the imitations I made. I have to thank an uncle who was keen enough to brave the crowds that had gathered at the airport’s waving gallery for that opportunity. The event was a significant one and took place in a year that was especially significant for civil aviation in Singapore with the split of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines or MSA, jointly operated by the two countries taking place in the background. The split would see the formation of Mercury Singapore Airlines on 24 January to fly Singapore’s flag. The intention had been to ride on the established MSA name, which was not too well received on the Malaysian side, prompting the renaming of the new MSA to Singapore Airlines (SIA) on 30 June 1972, a point from which the airline has never looked back.

What might have been.

What might have been.

The building that housed MSA and later SIA is prominent in the 1972 photograph, the MSA Building. Completed in 1968, the rather iconic MSA and later SIA Building was one built at the dawn of the city’s age of the skyscraper. The building was a pioneer in many other ways and an early adopter of the pre-fab construction technique. A second building in the photograph that also contributed to frenzy was the third Ocean Building, then under construction. The Ocean was to be the home of another company that was very much a part of Singapore’s civil aviation journey: the Straits Steamship Company. It was during the time of the already demolished Ocean Building that preceded the third that the company set up Malayan Airways in 1937. The airlines, which would only take off in 1947, became Malaysian Airways in 1963, and then MSA in 1965. The company, a household name in shipping, is now longer connected with sea or air transport in its current incarnation as Keppel Land. Other buildings marking the dawn of the new age seen in the photograph include the uncompleted Robina House and Shing Kwang House, and also a DBS Building in the early stages of erection.

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The completed third Ocean Building (left), seen in July 1974 (photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

It was several months prior to the the Concorde’s flight and just four weeks into school, that I would find myself skipping classes for what was to be the highlight of the year and of my childhood: the visit of the Queen, Elizabeth II of England, Price Phillip, and Princess Anne, to the 3-room Toa Payoh flat I had called home. As its was in the case of several other visiting dignitaries, Her Majesty’s programme included a visit to the rooftop viewing gallery of the Housing and Development Board’s first purpose-built “VIP block”. The gallery was where a view of the incredible success Singapore had in housing the masses could be taken in and a visit to a flat often completed such a visit and living in one strategically placed on the top floor of the VIP block had its advantages. Besides the Royal family, who were also taken to a rental flat on the second floor of Block 54 just behind the VIP block, Singapore’s first Yang di-Pertuan Negara and last colonial Governor, Sir William Goode, also dropped by in 1972. The flat also saw the visits of two other dignitaries. One was John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia in 1968 and the other, Singapore’s second president, Benjamin Henry Sheares, and Mrs Sheares in 1971.

The kitchen during the Queen's visit.

The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne, in the kitchen of my flat on 18 February 1972.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh on 18 February 1972.

One thing being in the afternoon session developed was the taste I acquired for epok-epok, fried curry puffs that are usually potato filled. Sold by a man who came around on a bicycle at dismissal time, the pastries that he vended – out of a tin carried on the bicycle – were ones to die for. They were made especially tasty the vendor’s special chilli-sauce  “injected” in with a spout tipped bottle and well worth going hungry at recess time, to have the 10 cents the purchase required, for. Being in the afternoon session, also meant that the rides home from school on the minibus SCB 388, were often in the heavy traffic. The slow crawl, often accompanied by the deep vocals of Elvis Presley playing in the bus’ cartridge player, permitted an observation of the progress that was being made in building Toa Payoh up. Much was going on in 1972 with the SEAP games Singapore was to host in 1973 just around the corner. Toa Payoh’s town centre, also the games village, was fast taking shape.

A view over the area in the early 1970s when Toa Payoh New Town was taking shape. The school can be seen in the lower left of the photo with Times Building then occupying the other part of the former quarry site.

A view over Toa Payoh around 1972.

Toa Payoh’s evolving landscape stood in stark contrast to its surroundings. To its south, across the Whampoa River, was Balestier – where suburbia might have ended before Toa Pyaoh’s rise. That still held its mix of old villas, shophouses, and a sprinkling of religious sites. The view north on the other hand was one of the grave scattered landscape of Peck San Teng, today’s Bishan, as would possibly have been the view west, if not for the green wall of sparsely developed elevations. On one of the hills, stood Toa Payoh Hospital, in surroundings quite conducive to rest and recovery. Potong Pasir to Toa Payoh’s east had still a feel of the country. Spread across what were the low lying plains that straddled one of Singapore’s main drainage channels, the Kallang River, the area was notorious for the huge floods that heavy rains would bring. When the area wasn’t submerged, it was one of green vegetable plots and the zinc topped structures of dwellings and livestock pens.

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh - with a view towards Toa Payoh (online at https://i1.wp.com/news.asiaone.com/sites/default/files/styles/w641/public/original_images/Nov2014/sgtowns_26.jpg)

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh – with a view towards Toa Payoh (SPH photo, online at http://news.asiaone.com/).

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978.

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978 (PUB photo).

Another main drainage channel, the Singapore River, was a point of focus for the tourism drive of 1972, during which two white statues came up. Representations perhaps of the past and the future, the first to come up was of a figure from its colonial past. The statue of Raffles, placed at a site near Empress Place at which Singapore’s founder was thought to have first came ashore, was unveiled in February. The second, was the rather peculiar looking Merlion and a symbol perhaps of new Singapore’s confused identity. This was unveiled at the river’s mouth in September. A strangest of would be National symbols and with little connection to Singapore except for its head of a lion, the animal Singapore or Singapura was named after, the creature was made up in a 1964 tourism board initiated effort. Despite its more recent origins, the statue has come to be one that tourists and locals alike celebrate and that perhaps has set the tone for how Singapore as a destination is being sold.

The View from the Esplanade towards the open sea at the mouth of the Singapore River in 1976. The Merlion in the background, is seen at its original location at the mouth of the river.

The Merlion at its original position at the mouth of the Singapore River (seen here in 1976).

An icon of a developing and newly independent Singapore, the Merlion, stares at the icons of the new Singapore across a body of water that played an important role in Singapore's development.

The Merlion at its position today, staring at the icons of the new Singapore.

1972 was a year that has also to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Externally, events such as the tragic massacre of Israeli Olympians in Munich, brought much shock and horror as did the happenings closer to home in Indochina. There were also reasons for fear and caution in Singapore. Water, or the shortage of it was very much at the top of the concerns here with the extended dry spell having continued from the previous year. There were also many reasons to fear for one’s safety with the frequent reports of murders, kidnappings and shootouts, beginning with the shooting to death of an armed robber, Yeo Cheng Khoon, just a week into the year.

The darkest of the year’s headlines would however be of a tragedy that seemed unimaginable – especially coming just as the season of hope and joy was to descend. On 21 November, a huge fire swept through Robinson’s Department Store at Raffles Place in which nine lives were lost. The devastating fire also deprived the famous store of its landmark Raffles Place home and prompted its move to Orchard Road.  This perhaps also spelled the beginning of the end for Singapore’s most famous square. In a matter of one and a half decades, the charm and elegance that had long marked it, would completely be lost.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

Robinson’s at Raffles Place, 1966.

The burnt shell of Robinson's(SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

The burnt shell of Robinson’s (SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

Another tragic incident was the 17 September shooting of the 22-year-old Miss Chan Chee Chan at Queensway. While the shooting took place around midday, it was only late in the day that medical staff attending to  Miss Chan realised that she had been shot. A .22 calibre rifle bullet, lodged in her heart, was only discovered after an x-ray and by that time it was too late to save her.

Just as the year had started, shootouts would be bring 1972 to a close in which four of Singapore’s most wanted men were killed. At the top of the list was Lim Ban Lim. Armed and dangerous and wanted in connection with the killing of a policeman, a series of armed robberies on both sides of the Causeway, Lim was ambushed by the police at Margaret Drive on 24 November and shot dead. Over a nine-year period, Lim and his accomplices got away with a total of S$2.5 million. An accomplice, Chua Ah Kau escaped the ambush. He would however take his own life following a shootout just three weeks later on 17 December. Having taken two police bullets in the confrontation near the National Theatre, Chua turned the gun on himself.

The case that had Singapore on tenterhooks due to the one and a half month trail of violence and terror left by the pair of gunmen involved, would play itself out just the evening before the gunfight involving Chua. It was one that I remember quite well from the manner in which the episode was brought to a close in the dark and seemingly sinister grounds of the old Aljunied al-Islamiah cemetery at Jalan Kubor. The trigger-happy pair, Abdul Wahab Hassan and his brother Mustapha, crime spree included gun running, armed robbery, gunfights with the police, hostage taking and daring escapes from custody (Abdul Wahab’s from Changi Prison and Mustapha’s from Outram Hospital). Cornered at the cemetery on 16 December and with the police closing in, Abdul Wahab shot and killed his already injured brother and then turned the gun on himself.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

The Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery off Jalan Kubor and Victoria Street, where two gunmen met their deaths in 1972.

Besides the deaths of the four, quite a few more armed and dangerous men were also shot and injured as a result of confrontations with the police. A 23 December 1972 report in the New Nation put the apparent rise in shootouts to the training the police had received to “shoot from the hip, FBI style”. The spate of crimes involving the use of firearms would prompt the enactment of the Arms Offences Act in 1973, which stipulates a mandatory death penalty for crimes that see the use of or the attempt to use a firearm to cause injury.

The tough measures may possibly have had their impact. The use firearms in crimes is now much less common. This has also brought about an increased the sense of safety in Singapore, as compared to 1972. Many who grew up in that age will remember being warned repeatedly of the dangers on the streets, particularly of being kidnapped. The same warnings are of course just as relevant today, but the threat was one that could be felt. Many stories of children disappearing off the streets were in circulation and that heightened the sense of fear. While many could be put down to rumour, there was at least one case of a child being abducted from a fairground, that I knew to be true. There were also many reports of actual kidnappings in the news, including one very high profile case in 1972 that saw the abduction of a wealthy Indonesian businessman. The businessman was released only after a ransom was paid.


Singapore in 1972:






11 July 2017, the day the Thieves of Sungei Road will be executed

14 02 2017

The once bustling flea market, known to me as “Robinson Petang” – Afternoon Robinson’s or simply as Sungei Road in my younger days, will soon be more of a distant memory. Come the 11th of July this year, the too little that is still left, will disappear and never again return when the free-hawking zone that today’s traders are operating in gets shut down (10 July will be its last day).

Thieves Market today, a pale shadow of Robinson Petang in its heyday.

Thieves Market today, a pale shadow of Robinson Petang in its heyday.

An aerial view of a part of Singapore that is in the midst of huge changes. The market is seen in the lower part of the photo.

An aerial view of a part of Singapore that is in the midst of huge changes. The market is seen in the lower part of the photo.

Resembling a shanty town with its makeshift shacks and temporary stalls mixed into shophouse lined streets in its heyday, Robinson Petang had a reputation that spread far and wide – one reputation it also had was the “aroma” that the nearby Rochor Canal gave to the area.  Also known as “Thieves Market”, for a variety of very obvious reasons, it was the place to go to get one’s hands on any pre-loved item imaginable. Many of the goods on offer, which also included unused items, were otherwise rarely found. One of the things I remember my parents’ heading there regularly for at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, was huge glass bottles – which my mum decorated with mosaic and macramé for use as flower vases. There were then lots of other items on offer: antiques (or junk – depending on how one looked at them), electrical goods, surplus army items, and old clothes sold by weight and even new ones that in today’s world are diverted to factory outlet stores. Fake goods were also sold and a joke often shared among friends was that a prized item had been acquired from Sungei Road – thereby suggesting that it wasn’t the real MaCoy. The bazaar, traces its history to the antique trade, which developed its presence in the area in the 1930s, with secondhand goods traders only moving in after the war.

The flea market in its heyday (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The flea market in its heyday (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The Thieves Market of today bears little resemblance to that Sungei Road. Resettlement and the area’s redevelopment since the 1970s, spelt the end for many of the trades around the area. Many of the area’s hawkers were moved in the 1970s and 1980s, including an exercise in August 1982 intended to put an end to the bazaar for good, following which a handful of 31 licensed rag-and-bone traders were left to ply the remnants of the trade. The bazaar, now centred  on Larut Road and Pitt Street, was designated a free-hawking zone (the only one in Singapore) in the year 2000, opened to traders who were Singapore Citizens or Permanent Residents and sees some 145 to 200 vendors operating on the busier days.

Sungei Road in 1978.

Sungei Road in 1978 (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

Sungei Road in the late 1980s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

Sungei Road in the late 1980s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

Sungei Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on 'On a Little Street in Singapore').

Sungei Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’).

A five-foot-way barber in the area - such trades were moved in the 1970s and 1980s (source: Mike Fong on 'On a Little Street in Singapore').

A five-foot-way barber in the area – such trades were moved in the 1970s and 1980s (source: Mike Fong on ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’).

In 2012, the Association for the Recycling of the Second Hand Goods, representing the traders, was informed of the decision to close the free-hawking zone. Despite appeals and attempts by the association to propose alternative sites, a decision was taken by the authorities to only allow flea markets to operated on a non-permanent basis – such as at street bazaars and trade fairs. Reasons given for the decision include the dis-amenities the market creates such as the obstruction and risk mosquito breeding in places traders use for storage. Assistance, including an offer made for the allocation of stalls in a nearby centre, will  be provided to 21 traders who hold a permit as well as to other traders affected.

Letter of appeal submitted by the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods in 2015.

Letter of appeal submitted by the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods in 2015 (source: the Association’s Facebook Page).

The is still a variety of goods on offer.

The is still a variety of goods on offer.

Watch parts are commonly sold.

Watch parts are commonly sold.

It appears that preliminary work for the area’s eventual redevelopment – which based on Master Plan 2014 is reserved for a residential development “with commercial at first storey” with a plot ration of 4.9 – will take place soon after the closure. This work may see the disappearance of a few of the area’s streets including Pitt Street and Larut Road (another road in the area, Pasar Lane, has already disappeared) and with the MRT station that is opening this year, will give the place a completely different complexion and erase a long held memory of the old Robinson Petang, for good.

Plans for future redevelopment (Master Plan 2014). The market is in the area circled.

Plans for future redevelopment (Master Plan 2014). The market is in the area circled.

Larut Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on 'On a Little Street in Singapore').

Larut Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’).

The market today is centred on a shophouse cleared Larut Road and Pitt Street.

The market today is centred on a shophouse cleared Larut Road and Pitt Street. The new MRT station is seen on the top right of the photograph.

More on the market, including photographs and also video documentation carried out by the National Heritage Board, can be found at: https://roots.sg/learn/resources/virtual-tours/sungei-road-flea-market.





Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant

11 12 2016

It seems that time may finally be called on the former National Aerated Water Company’s bottling plant at 1177 Upper Serangoon Road. Long a landmark at the 3rd Milestone, it sits on a valuable freehold site that has just been sold for quite a tidy sum to a Malaysian developer according to on a report in yesterday’s Straits Times. One of a handful of structures left along a stretch of the Kallang River that recall the river and the area’s rich industrial past.

An icon at the 3rd Milestone.

An icon at the 3rd Milestone (Nov 2016).

Those of my vintage will remember the plant with fondness. Built with hints of an Art Deco influence, it will not only be for its unique and “un-industrial” appearance in the context of the industrial buildings of a more recent age, but also for its production of Kickapoo Joy Juice and Sinalco. Kickapoo in its signature green bottle and inspired by the comic strip Li’l Abner – which had a lengthy run in the local newspapers, was an especially popular choice. Sinalco, of German origin,  might have been less so, but had its fans. A third drink that would be introduced by the plant in the 1970s, Royal Crown or RC Cola, had much less of an impact.

A view through the fence to a reminder of the past.

A view through the fence to a reminder of the past (April 2012).

While one could quite easily miss noticing the row of shophouses just up the road with its stone working shops that catered to the demand for headstones and religious statues from Bidadari cemetery just a mile down the road and an oddly located shop hawking Czechoslovakian Petrof pianos; the factory and another iconic structure nearby, the Serangoon Fire Station, would have caught the attention of most who passed through. The rather notorious Woodsville junction or previously roundabout just down the road, where chaos reigned with its confluence of six major roads, brought traffic to a slow enough crawl, allowing for more than just a cursory glance at the plant.

jeromelim-0054

Locked gates (Nov 2016).

naw-petaling-jaya-2012The factory added its presence in 1954, the same year the National Aerated Water Company had marked its 25th anniversary. The investment, amounting to some S$500,000, gave the company an output to 48,000 bottles a day – more than twice what its previous plant at Hamilton Road could manage (see New $500,000 soft drinks factory opens in Oct, The Straits Times, 23 July 1954). The motivation for the new plant was the exclusive rights the company had won in 1952 to bottle and distribute Sinalco in the region.  Sales of the company’s products grew at a phenomenal rate, increasing 30% year-on-year through the new facility’s first decade. A second plant would built in 1964. Located in Petaling Jaya near the “Rothmans Roundabout”, it catered to the growing demand up north.

A peek inside.

A peek inside (Apr 2012).

Things began however to head south at the end of the 1970s. The death knell for the plant would be sounded in the 1990s when the Kickapoo licensor, Monarch Beverage, cancelled the agreement it had with the company. The company would also face a suit for copyright infringement, which it lost  (see : Infopedia page on the National Aerated Water Company) and the plant ceased production at the end of the 1990s. The site was left abandoned with a clutter of crates and empty bottles at its front yard for what seemed the longest of times.

The front yard cleared of its clutter.

The front yard cleared of its clutter (Apr 2012).

That the buildings are still around has very much to do with the fact that the sale and redevelopment of the site had been prevented by a long standing tussle over shares one of its shareholders, the late Ching Kwong Kuen (see: Ching Chew Weng Paul v Ching Pui Sim and Others [2009] SGHC 277) had placed in trust with one of his brothers and a niece. The Chings, whose roots were in steel work and ship repair business with Kwong Soon Engineering, interests in the bottling company began in 1953. Connected with Kwong Soon Engineering are two other industrial buildings with a non-industrial appearance including a 1933 Art Deco style foundry where it started. Both buildings are still around and found  at Cavan Road, which is just next to Hamilton Road where National Aerated’s first plant had been located.

Kwong Soon Engineering's two buildings at Cavan Road, including its former foundry on the left.

Kwong Soon Engineering’s two buildings at Cavan Road, including its former foundry on the left.

Kwong Soon Engineering, some might remember, made the news in January 1996 when the RV Calypso, the famous mine-sweeper turned research vessel used by the legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, sank at its yard in Tuas. The vessel was hit by a barge that had broken free of its moorings and left under 4.8 metres of water with only part of its superstructure and mast exposed.

Another look at the former foundry.

Another look at the former foundry.

With the privately held site long marked for residential development (with a plot area of 2.8), there seems little chance of anything being kept even if there are renewed calls being made for its conservation.  It will certainly be a shame to lose an icon that has long been part of the area’s identity and representative of a past being too rapidly forgotten to just another towering apartment block the area seems to already have much too much of.

The third milestone is being colonised by towering apartment blocks.

The third milestone is being colonised by towering apartment blocks (Nov 2016).


More photographs:

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Tigers, elephants, rambutans and Xu Beihong in a garden of foolish indulgences

2 12 2016

Hidden in the thick vegetation in the swathe of land between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads are the remains of a forgotten community for whom the area was home. Interestingly, there is a lot more that lies hidden. Interwoven with the story of the lost community are also names, personalities and events that provided the area with a surprising amount of colour.

The remnants of a lost village are found in the forested area between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads.

The remnants of a lost village are found in the forested area between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads.

The stretch of Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads is quite famously associated with the Singapore Grand Prix; not the current incarnation of the motoring race, but one that reflected humbler times. While that may be another subject altogether, the are the inevitable links the area and its community has to the event, and one of it is the references to the village at the now lost Jalan Belang as the “Grand Prix kampong”.

A concrete structure in the former “Grand Prix kampong”.

The “belang” in Jalan Belang, which translates in Malay to “stripes” is said to have been a reference to the stripes of a tiger and speculation has it that it may have been due to a tiger having been sighted there. One of two privately built roads in the area, it provided access into the narrow strip from the area of Old Upper Thomson known as the snakes. Another road, the Lorong Pelita (“pelita” is Malay for “oil lamp”) lay further north. Lorong Pelita, it would appear, was quite a fitting name as electricity supply only reached the area in the late 1960s.

A kerosene lamp at Lorong Pelita.

A kerosene lamp at Lorong Pelita.

While the remains of the village do not reveal much of their composition of its residents, it can be seen in the proportions of the concrete and brick structures that have survived, some would have been doing quite well. Interestingly there are also numerous concrete receptacles, large and small – seemingly for collection of rain water – and the conspicuous absence of wells.

A fallen electricity pole at the area where Jalan Belang was.

A fallen electricity pole at the area where Jalan Belang was.

There are lots of water receptacles.

There are lots of water receptacles.

What is perhaps most interesting is the links the land has with a certain Han Wai Toon. Han, a Hainanese immigrant who arrived at our shores in 1915, purchased 2 1/2 acres in 1936 for some $700 and embarked on a quest to cultivate trees that would yield the perfect rambutan – as research by various individuals including architectural historian, Dr. Lai Chee Kien reveals. A 1960 article in the Singapore Free Press, “The Long Search for Better Rambutans” also provides information on this. The orchard, which Han named “Silly Fun Garden”, or as a graphic novel set in the garden written by Oh Yong Hwee and illustrated by Koh Hong Teng, describes it in more poetic language as  “The Garden of Foolish Indulgences”.

There are lost of fruit trees in the area besides the remnants of the Han Rambutan Garden.

There are lost of fruit trees in the area besides the remnants of the Han Rambutan Orhcard.

A sketch of the 'Han Rambutan Orchard' by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore in Global History p. 164).

A sketch of the ‘Han Rambutan Orchard’ by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore in Global History p. 164).

Despite its frivolous sounding name, the garden attracted also serious cultural and artistic exchanges. Amongst its visitors was Xu Beihong, a famous Chinese artist with whom Han shared an interest in Chinese ceramics. One of the artistic works Xu executed during a stay in 1939 was “Put Down Your Whip”, which  fetched a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in 2007. The painting, which has a strong anti-Japanese theme, was one of several that were Han had hidden on the grounds of his garden during the Japanese occupation. Another of Xu’s paintings in the stash, “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“, sold for US$4.12 million in 2006.

Put Down Your Whip by Xu Beihong.

Put Down Your Whip by Xu Beihong, which sold for a record US$9.2 million in 2007 (source: Wikipedia).

The garden of foolish indulgences?

The garden of foolish indulgences?

Han, who would make a name for himself in the study of art, ceramics and archaeology and was the author of 55 scholarly articles, made a permanent return to China in 1962 before passing away in 1970. Rather interestingly, a discovery attributed to Han during his time at Upper Thomson, was that of a Ming Dynasty Chinese tomb in the area in 1949. The tomb of a certain Chen Chow Guan, provided evidence that Chinese settlement in Singapore and the region went as far back as the 15th century. In addition to the tomb, a cluster of five Teochew graves from the early 19th century was also found by a group of archaeologists that included Han close by. It is not known what has become of the graves.

An edible flower, bunga kantan or torch ginger flower, better known here as rojak flower (its bud is used in the rojak dish).

An edible flower, bunga kantan or torch ginger flower, better known here as rojak flower (its bud is used in the rojak dish).

Yesterday no more.

Yesterday no more.

Those of my generation will probably remember Thai Handicraft, which was on the fringes of the area at Upper Thomson Road, and the family who were associated with it. It was hard to miss its showroom passing in the bus or a car with the attention the huge wooden cravings of elephants standing guard drew to the showroom. The shop, set in from the side of the road, dealt with imports of wooden cravings from Thailand and was owned by the Looi family whose links to the area also extended to the races.

There's pineapple too!

There’s pineapple too!

The location of the shop, which was right by the start and finish point of the Grand Prix circuit, was also where the Loois had operated a motorcycle shop, Looi Motors. The Loois also had racing in their blood and produced two generations of motorcycle racers. One member of the family, Gerry Looi, would become a household name in the motorcycle racing circuit in the 1970s and participated in the latter races of the Singapore Grand Prix with brother Fabian until its last race in 1973. Sadly, Gerry would meet a tragic end doing what he loved most and passed away at the age of 33 in October 1981 –  just a few days after a crash at the Shah Alam circuit had left him in a coma.

A red brick structure in the forest.

A red brick structure in the forest.

The privately held area was last inhabited in the mid-1980s when it was cleared out after its acquisition by the Housing and Development Board. While this would suggest that the intention then had been to give it to public housing, the site – now a wonderful oasis of green having been reclaimed by nature, will be where the future Thomson Nature Park will be. Work on the park will commence next year and is expected to be completed at the end of 2018.Part of the plan for the park involves the preservation of the site’s mature trees and the incorporation of the village ruins with the trails that will run through it and that will hopefully keep both the lush greenery and the rich history of the area alive.

Further information:

Online:

NParks announces plans for Upcoming Thomson Nature Park

NParks Factsheet (Thomson Nature Park)

History and nature meet at upcoming Thomson Nature Park, The Straits Times, 8 Oct 2016

The long search for better rambutans, The Singapore Free Press, 4 March 1960

Ming tomb claim in Singapore, The Singapore Free Press, 15 December 1949

‘Oldest Chinese cemetery’ find, The Straits Times, 11 January 1950

Han, 69 studies history from old China, The Singapore Free Press, 5 January 1961

Loois will make motor racing fans feel proud,The Straits Times, 15 April 1973

Daring racer was scared of the dark, New Nation, 24 October 1981

Offline:

Lai, Chee Kien 2011. “Rambutans in the Picture: Han Wai Toon and the Articulation of Space by the Overseas Chinese in Singapore”,  in Singapore in Global History,  edited by Heng, Derek and Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, 151-172, Amsterdam University Press.

Wong, Sharon 2009. “Negotiating Identities, Affiliations and Interests: The Many Lives of Han Wai Toon, an Overseas Chinese”,  in Reframing Singapore in Global History,  edited by Heng, Derek and Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, 155-174, Amsterdam University Press.


More photographs:

The remnants of quite a large house.

The remnants of quite a large house.

A room in the house.

A room in the house.

And the washroom.

And the washroom.

A forest stream.

A forest stream.

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A forgotten corner of Thomson Road

6 10 2016

Tucked away in an obscure corner of Thomson Road and Thomson Lane is the Lee Ah Mooi Old Age Home, sitting on a site whose significance has long been forgotten. Operating in a cluster of single-storey blocks of a style reminiscent of schools of the 1950s, the layout of the home points to it having once been one of many built in the 1950s as part of an ambitious school building effort that we have all but forgotten about. The former school’s name, Lee Kuo Chuan, also links to the late philanthropist and rubber magnate Mr.Lee Kong Chian, being the name of his father.

The former school and its soon to be lost yard.

The former school and its soon to be lost yard.

The school construction programme was part of a ten-year education plan, known also as the “Frisby Plan”. The plan was supplemented by a five-year plan to accelerate the effort to meet the pressing need to provide places in schools for the growing population of children. It was put in place by the the colonial administration’s Director of Education, Mr. A. W. Frisby with the aim of providing free universal primary education to all in Singapore by 1960. The implementation of this also saw the Teachers’ Training College, the predecessor to the National Institute of Education, being established in 1950. The plan although having been referred to as the Frisby Plan, actually had its origins in a 1948 paper put up by Mr. Frisby’s predecessor, Mr. J. Neilsen.

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All three acres of the land, on which the school was built – part of a former quarry, was donated by Mr. Lee Kong Chian as its name does suggest. Mr. Lee, who first came across from China with his father, a tailor, in the early 1900s, made generous generous donations to education and to the poor – an effort that is being continued by the Lee Foundation, which he founded. Among the projects Mr. Lee funded was the construction of the original National Library at Stamford Road for which he laid the foundation stone in August 1957. Mr. Lee donated a sum of $375,000 to that effort on the condition that the library charged no membership fees.

Lee Kuo Chuan School in the 1960s (posted by Chong Meng on the Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School Facebook Group).

Lee Kuo Chuan School in the 1950s (posted by Chong Meng on the Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School Facebook Group).

Interestingly the school seems to have lent its name to Kuo Chuan Constituency, one of three new parliamentary constituency carved out of Toa Payoh Constituency for the 1972 General Election. The constituency, whose first elected MP was Mr. P. Selvadurai, and last Mr. Wong Kan Seng, was absorbed into Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency in 1988.

A classroom in the 1950s (posted by Chong Meng on the Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School Facebook Group).

A classroom in the 1950s (posted by Chong Meng on the Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School Facebook Group).

The school became Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School when it merged with Thomson Primary School in 1985 and moved it new premises at Ah Hood Road. As Lee Kuo Chuan Primary, it operated until the end of 1997 when it was shut down.

A view over the area in the early 1970s when Toa Payoh New Town was taking shape. The school can be seen in the lower left of the photo with Times Building then occupying the other part of the former quarry site.

A view over the area in the early 1970s when Toa Payoh New Town was taking shape. The school can be seen in the lower left of the photo with Times Building then occupying the other part of the former quarry site.

The home, started by a former nurse Madam Lee Ah Mooi in 1963 at her home in Chong Pang Village, does itself have a little story. It was set up to provide care for former Samsui women and Amahs, many of whom were sworn to singlehood, in their old age. It occupied several sites before moving into its current premises in 1986. It has also been in the news as a possible victim of the North-South Expressway project. Based on updates provided on its Facebook Page, it does seem that the home will be able to remain in place until 2020, although its kitchen and laundry spaces and its front yard would be affected.

More on the school, the old age home and the impact of the North-South Expressway project on it can be found at the following links:





Parting glances: Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as it will never again be

25 08 2016

The time has come to say goodbye, albeit a temporary one, to another old friend. The former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station is set to be closed come the new year so that the extension of the Circle Line MRT and the construction of a MRT station can go on beneath it. If all goes well, it will only be reopened in 2025, by which time it will have a feel that will be very different  that which has existed at the station through the grand art-deco inspired station’s 84 year history.

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The famous façade of the station features four triumphal figures sculptured by Angelo Vannetti of the Raoul Bigazzi Studios in Florence that represent the then four pillars of the Malayan economy.

The former station holds the memories of many. The railway’s mostly Malaysian staff still speak fondly of their days in what has to be one of the grander stations to serve along the Malayan railway. There also are the memories of the numerous passengers who passed through its especially grand vaulted main hall; many depended on the railway not just for forays across the causeway, but also as a well used link for the thousands who commuted from the homes in southern Johor to Singapore for their work and even to attend school.

Murals decorate the main hall. The hall also features two booths made of teak wood that have since been painted over.

Murals decorate the main hall. The hall also features two booths made of teak wood that have since been painted over.

A view of the main hall.

A view of the main hall without the clutter of the last days.

As part of the Request for Proposals (RFP) to develop a concept plan for the Rail Corridor, which was returned to Singapore on 1 July 2011, a concept design was sought for the adaptive reuse of the former station for an interim period of 20 years. During this period, the nearby port facility the station had been positioned to serve, will make a westward move, following which plans for the Greater Southern Waterfront, into which the former station will be incorporated, will be firmed up.

The end of the line. This year is the last year we get to take in this perspective. It is one that has greeted three generations of travellers coming by train to Singapore for some 79 years before the closure of the railway at the end of June 2011.

The end of the line. This year is the last year we get to take in this perspective. It is one that has greeted three generations of travellers coming by train to Singapore for some 79 years before the closure of the railway at the end of June 2011.

The completion of the Circle Line also dovetails into this and the tunnels for the line will run directly under the station to minimise the potential for uneven ground settlement and the risk of damage to the precious structure of the National Monument. A MRT station, Cantonment Station (its working name), is also being built under a part of the station’s platforms. For this, sections of the platforms, which had apparently been assembled in a modular manner, will be removed and stored to allow excavation work to be carried out for the MRT stations’s construction. The intention will be to reinstate the removed platform sections and refurbish them after the work for the MRT station is completed.

Gaps in the station's platforms, said to be amongst the longest in the Malayan Railway's stations, point to where the modular sections come together.

Gaps in the station’s platforms, said to be amongst the longest in the Malayan Railway’s stations, point to where the modular sections come together.

One of the things that is apparently being looked at by the winning team for the RFP’s adaptive reuse of the former station, is how, besides the use of the station as a gateway into the Rail Corridor as a community space, is the integration of the MRT station under its platforms into it. This may see an additional MRT station entrance between the platforms that will see traffic of passengers of the new train line over the platforms and through the former station’s main building.

An impression of the MRT station’s entrance between the platforms produced by MKPL. New platforms are shown in this impression as it was initially thought that the sections of the platforms in way of the MRT station would have to be demolished to allow excavation work.

The reverse view of the proposed MRT station’s entrance between the platforms. A canopy over it will be one of the interventions that will be necessary.

While this may necessitate several interventions that will alter the feel the former station once provided, it will be a rather meaningful outcome for the former railway station that in the words of the winning team MKPL Architects Pte Ltd and Turenscape International Ltd, will have “the former station, connecting Singapore’s past, present and future”. Another thing being looked at is the beautifying of the space fronting the station currently used as a car park as a “Station Green” – a landscaped garden intended to allow a better appreciation of the station’s grand façade.

MKPL/Turenscape proposes to replace the car park, currently in front of the former station, with a landscaped garden.

MKPL/Turenscape proposes to replace the car park, currently in front of the former station, with a landscaped garden.

For those who want to take a last look at the former station before it closes and is forever altered, only three opportunities possibly remain. These coincide with the anticipated open houses that will be held over the year’s three remaining public holidays. The last will be Christmas Day, a widely commemorated holiday that for the members of one of the larger religious communities here in Singapore, is one of promise. Built with a promise that could never be fulfilled, the grand old station will close after Christmas Day, with a new promise for its future.

The platforms, were of a length to accommodate the longest mail trains.

The length of the platforms, said to be among the longest in the FMSR’s stations, were to accommodate the longest mail trains.

A look up what in the station's last days, was the departure platform.

A look up what in the station’s last days, was the departure platform.

Immigration counters last used by Malaysian immigration officers. These will surely be removed.

Immigration counters on the departure platform last used by Malaysian immigration officers. These will surely be removed.

One of two hydraulic stops at the

One of two hydraulic stops at the end of the tracks – one was returned following the handover of the station.

Memories of teh tarik.

Memories of teh tarik.

Rooms that were used by logistics companies at the former station - these possibly will be converted for use by F&B or retail outlets in the future.

Rooms that were used by freight forwarders at the former station – these possibly will be converted for use by F&B or retail outlets in the future.

Another look into a freight forwarders' storeroom.

Another look into a freight forwarders’ storeroom.

A booth. Last used by the auxiliary police at the station, the booth had in its early days, been used by the convenience shop that operated at the station.

A booth. Last used by the auxiliary police at the station, the booth had in its early days, been used by the convenience shop that operated at the station.

The inside of the former ticketing booth.

The inside of the former ticketing booth.

Beautiful soft light illuminates some of the rooms along the main hall.

Beautiful soft light illuminates some of the rooms along the main hall.

A part of the platforms where one could watch the world go slowly by over a cup of teh tarik in the station's last days.

A part of the platforms where one could watch the world go slowly by over a cup of teh tarik in the station’s last days.

Another view of the main hall. There are lots of stories related to the haunting of the third level (section under the letters FMSR at the far end), used previously by the Station Hotel.

Another view of the main hall. There are lots of stories related to the haunting of the third level (section under the letters FMSR at the far end), used previously by the Station Hotel.

The main hall of the station. Part of the vaulted ceiling and batik-style mosaic panels can be seen.

The clutter of the main hall in the station’s last days.

The crowd at Tanjong Pagar late on 30 June 2011 to witness the departure of the last train.

The crowd witnessing Tanjong Pagar’s last moments as a station late on 30 June 2011.

Last journeys.

A final glance at the main hall.

A final glance at the main hall.


A look back at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

Gazetted as a National Monument in its final days as the southern terminal of the Malayan Raliway, the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was built in 1932 as a centrepiece that would underline Singapore’s growing importance as an economic centre in the British Far East. Its position was carefully considered for its envisaged role as a gateway from the southernmost point in continental Asia to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Sir Cecil Clementi the Governor of Singapore, in his address at the station’s opening on 2 May 1932, made the observation that it was “a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic”, adding that it was “where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”.

It was a promise that was not to be fulfilled. Sir Cecil could not have predicted that the railway’s importance as a means of transportation in the Malayan peninsula would diminish and just a little over 79 years since the 5.1.5 pm arrival of the first train from Bukit Panjang Station, the whistle of the last train to depart was heard late into the night of 30 June 2011. An agreement between the governments of Singapore and Malaysia (who through the administration of the railway, also owned the station and the land on which the railway operated through Ordinance 22 of 1918 or the Singapore Railway Transfer Ordinance 1918), which had taken two decades to sort out, saw to the move of the railway’s terminal to Woodlands and with that the transfer ownership  the station and much of the railway land on the island to the Singapore government on 1 July 2011.

Since its closure, the station fell into disuse with the odd event held in the space, and in more recent times, a series of open houses held during public holidays. The location of the former station in what will become the Greater Southern Waterfront has put permanent plans for it on hold. A concept plan for an interim use is however being developed as part of the Rail Corridor RFP by a team led by MKPL Architects and landscape designers Turenscape International. An MRT station for the final stretch of the Circle Line is also being constructed under a section of the platforms, together with the line being run under the station. The work being carried out means that the former station closed to the public for a substantial period of time with the completion of the MRT scheduled for 2025.

The station found use after its closure as a temporary event space.

The station found use after its closure as an event space.

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The rush by the staff at the station to leave on the last train at the end of the final day of operations.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

A final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

A few former food stall operators having a last breakfast on 30 June 2011.

A last breakfast on 30 June 2011.

A reflection on the convenience store and the main hall in the last days.

The hardworking last Station Master at Tanjong Pagar - En. Ayub.

The very hardworking last Station Master at the station, En. Ayub.

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The arrival platform with its meal time crowd.

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Coming home.

Returning home, one of the first things that would greet you (post mid 1998) as you walked to the end of the platform was the barrier before you got into the public area. Prior to the move of the SIngapore CIQ, you would first have to pass through Singapore Immigration, Customs and a narrow passage through a fenced area where K9 unit dogs would sniff passengers for smuggled narcotics.

The welcome. One of the first things that would greet passengers after mid 1998 when the Singapore CIQ was relocated to Woodlands. Prior to the move, it would have been necessary to pass through Singapore Immigration, Customs and a narrow fenced passageway where dogs (behind the fence) would sniff passengers for narcotics.

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The wait for a loved one.

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Watching the world go slowly by over a cup of teh tarik.

Tickets would be checked and punched at the departure gate.

The departure gate.

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Leaving on the 8am.

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The walk to Spooner Road.

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Platform end.

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Saying goodbye.

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A welcome home.

A very helpful ticketing clerk, En. Azmi, who was posted to the station on 1st July 1990. He completed a full 21 years at the station when it ceased operations on 30th June 2011.

The very friendly En. Azmi. He was posted to the station on 1st July 1990 and completed a full 21 years of service at the station when it ceased operations on 30th June 2011.

Mr Mahmoodul Hasan who ran the two canteens in the station before its closure.

Mr Mahmoodul Hasan, the M. Hasan in the name of the station’s makan place. He ran the station’s two canteens before its closure.

And last of all one that should not be forgotten - one of the many cats the station was home to.

Catwalk – one of the many cats the station played host to.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

A view down the platform.

The ticket counter in quieter days - well before the madness of the last two months descended on the station.

The ticketing counter.

Especially when the ticketing computer is down - that in my experience often happened.

An all too common occurrence at the ticketing counter.

A train at the platform.

The last Eastern and Oriental Express train to depart.

Some of those who assisted him at the drinks counter and the popular Ramly Burger stand.

The Ramly Burger stand. Food was one of the draws of the station.

By 12.45 pm, the Briyani had been sold out, brining to an end a chapter for Ali Nacha at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The day the music died. 12.45 pm on 24 June 2011, when the last plate of Briyani from the popular Ali Nacha stall at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was served.

The arrival.

The arrival.

The festive crowd - when queues formed for tickets in the lead up to Chinese New Year. Many with roots in Malaysian would return by train to their home towns for the important holiday (photo source: National Archives online)

The festive crowd – when queues formed for tickets in the lead up to Chinese New Year. Many with roots in Malaysian would return by train to their home towns for the important holiday (photo source: National Archives online).

The main vaulted hall of the station in its early days. An impressive integration of public

The main hall of the station in its early days. The station was built in 1932 to serve as a gateway to the oceans, through the wharves at Tanjong Pagar.  Its opening on 2 May 1932 was marked by the 5.15 pm arrival of a train from Bukit Panjang. The first the public saw of it however, was several months prior to this, when it was used for a Manufacturer’s Exhibition in January 1932.






Sophia, Caroline and Emily, and the spiced up Hills of Babylon

18 08 2016

Just north of a hill of much history known to the early inhabitants of Singaporeans as the Forbidden Hill or Bukit Larangan, is a cluster of low hills that are known today as Mounts Sophia, Emily, and Caroline.  The hills, three sisters if you like, go back a long way and have a rather storied past.

The value of these elevations, rising some 30 to 35 metres above the plain which Raffles designated as the new settlement’s European precinct, and the harbour that was the very reason for which the settlement was founded beyond it, had certainly been recognised in the early days. Two of the protagonists of the new trading post soon had their hands on parts of them. In a letter written by Singapore’s first resident, William Farquhar, to Raffles on 23 December 1822,  Raffles is told that parts of the hills had been cleared at government expense, with 33 acres of “Silligie” Hill  occupied by Captain William Flint, the Master Attendant, and 20 acres of the next hill to the north, “Bukit Cawah”, that the Resident had himself taken possession of.

William Farquhar.

William Farquhar.

In the letter, Farquhar also describes the state of the hills at the time of the founding – the “commencement of the establishment” as he had put it. “Silligie” was “occupied in the western side by a Chinese planter who had formed a Gambier Plantation there”. Its eastern side had been “a primitive forest” and “Bukit Cawah” had been “totally unoccupied and covered with primitive forest trees”.

Gambier, an extract from the leaves of the plant is used in dyes and in the tanning of leather and also in the chewing of betel nut. Gambier was planted in Singapore by the Chinese even before the British arrived.

Gambier, an extract from the leaves of the plant is used in dyes and in the tanning of leather and also in the chewing of betel nut. Gambier was planted in Singapore by the Chinese even before the British arrived.

Raffles, who was at odds with Farquhar over his handling of the affairs of new settlement, had allegations made that Farquhar had appropriated more (land) than he was entitled to on Bukit Cawah. In an essay  “William Farquhar, First Resident and Commandant of Singapore”1, one of the foremost authorities on Raffles, John Sturgus Bastin, informs us that Raffles had referred to what Farquhar had his hands on as his “Hills of Babylon” – a reference to the hills in the Book of Revelations that one of the beasts of the end times, Babylon, rests on.

From a map of Singapore dated 1822-23. Cawah is probably misspelt as Rawa.

From a map of Singapore dated 1822-23. Cawah is probably misspelt as Rawa.

We know of Bukit Cawah today as Mount Emily and Silligie Hill (or Bukit Selegie) as Mount Sophia. Early maps and documents use several variations in the spelling of the names, the origins of which, seem rather obscure. An attempt is made by Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh in “Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics” to offer possible explanations. One relates to a Bugis chief with a band of followers called the “Orang Selegie”, while another gives Selegie, spelt Seligi, to be a reference to the nibong palm  used in the making of fishing stakes or of spears of the same name. There apparently is a sharpened wooden spear used by the Borneo based Iban tribe that is known a “seligi”. That is made of the trunk of the nibong palm.

From a map entitled "Part of Singapore Island", 1825, which identifies both Bukit Selegie and Bukit Kawah.

From a map entitled “Part of Singapore Island”, 1825, which identifies both Bukit Selegie and Bukit Kawah.

I should think that Selegie must have less exotic origins. A set of sketches of fishing implements employed by the Orang Laut seen in Cynthia Chou’s book on the Orang Suku Laut2, who were among the earliest inhabitants of Singapore, offers a possible clue. A multi-pronged tip of a fishing spear commonly used in “pre-settlement” daysis found in them, made not necessarily from the nibong palm that is identified as a “seligi“. How this seligi became mixed up with the hill is anybody’s guess. One explanation I can offer is that the two hills may have stuck out of the undeveloped pre-settlement landscape like the prongs of seligi.

Fishing spears employed by the orang laut.

Fishing spears employed by the orang laut.

As opposed to the Iban seligi, there should be little doubt that the seligi fishing spear would be ones that are readily recognisable in Singapura. Spearing of fish was the main method of fishing, as had been observed by Munshi Abdullah, a scholar and translator from Malacca, as is recorded in his autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah. The introduction of the hook and line by fishermen coming over from his native Malacca post-settlement put an end to the practice. It is not unimaginable that the two hills had collectively been referred to as Bukit Selegie. An indication of this is seen perhaps in G.D. Coleman’s 1836 Map of Town and Environs, which shows a Mount Sophia that had been marked in earlier maps as Bukit Selegie alongside a Mount Emily (Bukit Cawah) that is instead marked as “Bukit Selegie”.

From the 1836 Map of Town and Environs, based on a survey carried out by G D Coleman.

From the 1836 Map of Town and Environs, based on a survey carried out by G D Coleman (click to enlarge).

The name Cawah seems most obscure.

One explanation that has been offered is that Cawah is a variation in the spelling of Jawa or Java, and the hill was so named due to the proximity of a Javanese settlement at Kampong Jawa. The “C” in this case might have been pronounced as it is in modern Malay spelling, as a Ch. We do however see the name spelt with a K, Kawah, and what this means is that the name would more likely have been pronounced as Ka-wah rather than as Cha-wah.

The word Kawah finds widespread use in Indonesia to describe a volcanic crater. It also translates into English as a cauldron or even a large pot. As with the name Selegie, Kawah could have been a reference to the shape of a geographical feature, such as that of the depression found in between the two hills. But without no evidence to back this up, it would be hard to put a finger on it.

A crater, Kawah Sikadang, near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

A crater, Kawah Sikadang, near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

The hills’ modern day names are in themselves, a cause for much speculation. While it has been generally accepted that the Sophia in Mount Sophia was Raffles second wife Sophia Hull, who the Flints who moved up the hill were thought to have honoured;  there also are suggestions that it may have been one of several Sophias also connected with the hill, of which there are a few.

The Flints, Mary Ann, Raffles' sister and Captain William, the Master Attendant.

The Flints, Mary Ann, Raffles’ sister and Captain William, the Master Attendant.

One, is none other than the Flints’ daughter, Mary Sophia Anne, who was born in 1823, the year the Flints moved to their new address. The name Sophia Cooke also comes up. Cooke was an Anglican missionary who arrived in 1853 to run the Chinese Girls’ School on the hill that is now St. Margaret’s School. There is also Sophia Blackmore. Ms Blackmore founded Methodist Girls School in 1887. Although the school only moved up from Short Street to Mount Sophia in 1925, Ms Blackmore other connections with the hill date back to the 1890s.

The Deaconess Home (later Nind Home), acquired in 1894, was used by Ms. as a boarding house. The site at No.6 Mount Sophia (later No. 11), based on the details of the lease, could possibly be where Flint had his house.

The Deaconess Home (later Nind Home), acquired in 1894, was used by Ms. as a boarding house. The site at No.6 Mount Sophia (later No. 11), based on the details of the lease, could possibly be where Flint had his house.

One rather interesting suggestion that comes up from time to time is that the hills along with Mount Caroline, are named after the three daughters of Charles Robert Prinsep. This may have its origins in a Straits Times article from 10 May 1936. Charles Robert Prinsep, a barrister with the East India Company based in Calcutta, was also a plantation owner and the man behind the second phase of the hills’ development. He may have first purchased Bukit Cawah from the Farquhar estate in 1831,  adding to it a huge tract of land that extended to Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline, soon after.

View today over the three hills.

View today over what had once been the Prinsep estate.

All 270 acres of Prinsep’s sprawling estate, roughly the size of today’s Gardens by the Bay. was given to the cultivation of nutmeg. The arrival of nutmeg as a crop to our shores, and before that to Penang, was prompted by the desire of the British to challenge the monopoly the Dutch had on a spice that was worth more than its weight in gold.

The nutmeg fruit, seen on a tree on Fort Canning Hill.

The nutmeg fruit, seen on a tree on Fort Canning Hill.

By 1848, Prinsep’s estate was among 20 such plantations that were to alter the landscape of the previously forested hills on both sides of what we know today as Orchard Road. The estate of 6,700 trees had one of the highest yields and at its height produced some 22,000 nutmegs daily. Besides nutmeg, another spice Mace, is obtained from the “nuts”, ground from the seed’s aril. The spice nutmeg is from the seed itself. The plantations, by the way, were what gave Orchard Road its name.

Nutmeg, the only plant from which two spices are obtained. Mace from the red aril covering its seed and nutmeg from the seed itself.

Nutmeg, the only plant from which two spices are obtained. Mace from the red aril covering its seed and nutmeg from the seed itself.

It was around the time of the establishment of the Prinsep estate in 1831 that the name Mount Sophia first crops up (this on the basis of newspaper articles, the archives of which do not go further back than 1831 but the manner in which it does crop up points to its adoption around the same time). This was some five years before Coleman’s 1836 map was published. The mention is found in a letter to the Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, published  on 26 May 1831, in which the writer makes mention that “Flint’s Hill”, the location named of a fire that was the subject of an earlier report, should have been referred to as “Mount Sophia”.

A letter from Willaim Farquhar to Lt. Jackson making a request to have the identified hills, including Bukit Selegie and Bukit Cawah, surveyed. The various parties who were in possession of the hills are also identified.

A letter from Willaim Farquhar to Lt. Jackson making a request to have the identified hills, including Bukit Selegie and Bukit Cawah, surveyed. The various parties who were in possession of the hills are also identified.

By 1839, Prinsep’s estate had apparently been quite well established. Mention of the estate, and more importantly the three hills by name, is made in a published account of a visit paid by the crew of the United States frigate Columbia, to the estate. The Columbia, on a well documented round the world voyage, made a stopover in Singapore in February 1839. The accounts of the voyage were to be published in two volumes in 1840. On the visit to the estate, the account states:

The first of these estates, that of Mr. Princeps, who resides in Calcutta, is laid out with excellent taste upon beautiful grounds. It occupies about two hundred and fifty acres, including three lovely hills, Mount Sophia, Mount Caroline and Mount Emily, each surmounted by a neat bungalow, from which avenues radiate and intersect all over the plantation.

When we were there, the superintendent, who politely show us every part and answered our inquiries, informed us that they had already planted four thousand nutmeg trees; twenty thousand coffee shrubs; two hundred orange trees; two hundred clove trees; and one hundred and fifty areka trees, besides a few of many other kinds.

– “Around the World: A Narrative of a Voyage in the East India Squadron under Commodore George C. Read”, Volume 2, 1840, Page 143.

The extent of the Prinsep Estate, seen in an 1870 map.

The extent of the Prinsep Estate, seen in an 1870 map. The 106 acres bought for Government House, is marked as “New Government Property”.

This account discounts that possibility of the hills being named after Prinsep’s daughters. The first, Sophia Catherine, only came into the world three years after the visit, in 1842. To add to the improbability of this, Prinsep, who married Louisa Anne White in 1837, was to have three other daughters, none of whom had the name Caroline. His other daughters were Annie Mary (b. 1848), Louisa Sophia (b. 1851), and Mary Emily (b. 1853). The account. plus the fact that Mount Sophia is mentioned as early as 1831, also puts paid to the suggestions concerning both Ms Cooke and Ms Blackmore.

Mary Emily Prinsep (Julia Margaret Cameron, photograph,1866). Could she have been the Emily in Mount Emily?

Mary Emily Prinsep (Julia Margaret Cameron, photograph,1866). Probably not the Emily in Mount Emily.

Further investigation does however throw up the possibility that a different set of sisters in the Prinsep family are behind the names. Charles Robert, it turns out, had three sisters who coincidentally, were named Sophia, Caroline and Amelia (affectionately known as Emily). There is every likelihood that it was this set of sisters, who had been born before Charles Robert’s plantation came into being, who lent their names to the hills. It could also have been the case that Prinsep, on finding that one of the hills had already carried the name of one of his sisters, had decided to follow on, naming the other two main hills of his estate after his other sisters. This is perhaps less likely as the report of 1831 tells us that the name Flint’s Hill for Bukit Selegie was very much still use three years after his unfortunate demise in 1828. Incidentally, there is also a less significant hill in the estate, Mount Louisa. This appears in some maps as Lock’s Hill and it is probable that the Louisa in the name is  that of Prinsep’s wife.

Nutmeg plantations in Singapore, mid 1800s..

Nutmeg plantations in Singapore, mid 1800s..

Prinsep’s plantation was to go the way of the island’s other nutmeg plantations. Despite thriving initially, disease was to dent the ambitions that the plantation owners held. By the time Prinsep had the lease on his estate extended in 1859, nutmeg as a crop had already been wiped out. This was to pave the way for the next phase of the development on the hills, one that saw it becoming an estate for the very well-heeled.

A sketch of a young Charles Robert Prinsep by his sister Emily, 1824.

A sketch of a young Charles Robert Prinsep by his sister Emily, 1824.

Sophia Charlotte Haldimand (née Prinsep) - another sketch by Emily Prinsep. Could she be the Sophia in Mount Sophia?

Sophia Charlotte Haldimand (née Prinsep) – another sketch by Emily Prinsep. Could she be the Sophia in Mount Sophia?

The estate was put up for sale in 1859 into the early 1860s, the evidence being advertisements placed in the newspapers. The sale in parts of the estate was allowed for and a familiar name in that of Mr (Lawrence) Niven features in the advertisements. Niven, after whom Niven Road at the foot of Mount Emily was named, is perhaps more well known for his efforts setting up of Singapore’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Singapore Botanical Gardens, as its very first superintendent. He had been the superintendent of Prinsep’s nutmeg estate prior to his appointment to the Botanical Gardens position and must have held both appointments concurrently at some point in time.

For Sale

In the immediate neighbourhood of the town of Singapore, the very desirable property of C. R. Prinsep, Esquire, lying between the Orchard and Bukit Timah Roads, consisting of Hills and Low grounds daily increasing in value.

This lands may be sold in lots to suit purchasers and all further particulars may be learned from Mr Niven, the Superintendent of the Estate or Messrto to be & Co.

Singapore, 13th April, 1859.

Well documented is the sale in 1867 of 106 acres of the western section of the estate,, covering Mount Caroline and Mount Louisa, to the Governor, Sir Harry St. George Ord. This was for a new Government House (now the Istana) to be erected. The placement of the fort on the original Government Hill, Bukit Larangan,  had displaced the Governor’s residence. The new Government House on the top of Mount Caroline was completed in 1869. Mount Caroline had in fact been identified in the 1850s by Army Engineer Captain George Chancellor Collyer, as a possible location to move Government House to. This came with the recommendations he made a 1858 report to fortify Bukit Larangan. Mount Caroline, was described by Collyer, as the “most commanding spot on the island”. Together with Government House, the Colonial Secretary’s residence (now Sri Temasek), was also completed at the same time at Mount Louisa.

A photograph of Government House perched on Mount Caroline in the 1880s, seen from Fort Canning. Mount Sophia is in the background on the left.

A photograph of Government House perched on Mount Caroline in the 1880s, seen from Fort Canning. Mount Sophia is in the background on the left.

The remaining parts of Mount Sophia and Mount Emily were to be subdivided and sold. Their elevation, and prime location in the vicinity of the heart of the thriving municipality, made the plots being offered a very attractive prospect. It did not take long before the exclusive neighbourhood that was to boast some of the grandest residences to be seen on the island, started to take shape and by the 1880s, several large residences occupied prime positions across the twin peaks.

An 1881 map showing the tops of the hills of the former Prinsep estate populated by newly built residences.

An 1881 map showing the tops of the hills of the former Prinsep estate populated by newly built residences.

A view across Mount Sophia towards Mount Caroline and Government House. The building in the foreground is Olson Building - the only one of the buildings of the former Methodist Girls School that is being conserved.

A view across Mount Sophia towards Mount Caroline and Government House. The building in the foreground is Olson Building – the only one of the buildings of the former Methodist Girls School that is being conserved.

There is little doubt that one had to be someone of means to move up to the hills, which would have been most accessible by horse and carriage. One of the first grand residences to secure a footing on the hills would have been Carrington House around 1873. Little is known about the house except for the fact that a panther was cornered and shot in it sometime in December 1883. The very brave man credited with making the killing, Mr Maurice Drummond, apparently received a reward of $25 for his troubles.

Carrington House, as seen from Osborne House, 1880.

Carrington House, as seen from Osborne House, 1880.

Carrington House, we can see from the 1880 photograph, found a perch in quite a prominent location on the slopes of Mount Sophia. One can only imagine the views it must have offered in days when one’s gaze could be cast across the settlement for as far as the eye could see. It is no wonder that two of the grandest mansions Singapore has seen were to be built on its site. Carrington House was to be replaced by the ostentatious Adis Lodge and then an even grander Eu Villa. It is in the days of Eu Villa that were are able to get an appreciation of what the view must have been like from a 1936 Straits Times article:

From Eu Villa the view on three sides, out over the harbour and away to Keppel Hatbour on one side and Katong on the other, is simply breathtaking, especially in the evening when the city takes on an indefinite soft and delicate colouring. This is not the highest point on the hill, but, because the house juts out with no encumbrance on either side, the view is better than on the actual brow of the hill above Eu Villa … it is a magical place to be on a moonlight night, overlooking the lights of the city and the junk anchorage.

– The Straits Times, 10 May 1936

Eu Villa and the view from it.

Eu Villa and the view from it.

A view over Mount Sophia towards the harbour c. late 1940s. Eu Villa can be seen in the lower left part of the photograph.

A view over Mount Sophia towards the harbour c. late 1940s. Eu Villa can be seen in the lower left part of the photograph. Cathay building, which came up in the late 1930s, Singapore’s “first skyscraper”  was the first tall building to block the view one got from the top of the hill.

Adis Lodge, which came up in 1907, was built by Nissim Nissim Adis. Adis was the proprietor of very grand Grand Hotel de L’Europe at the corner of St. Andrew’s Road and High Street, the location today of the old Supreme Court wing of the National Gallery. It was after him that Adis Road on Mount Sophia was named. Opulently furnished and decorated, Adis Lodge carried the reputation of being one of the “most magnificent of mansions east of the Suez”. It did not last long however. It was sold to the “king of tin” Eu Tong Sen in 1912. Eu had the lodge replace in 1915 with Eu Villa. Eu Villa, which had a fairy tale like quality, survived for quite a bit longer. It was sold in 1973 for S$8.19 million and was only demolished in the early 1980s.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Mount Sophia was also a name that was synonymous with the Methodist Mission and Methodist Girls’ School (MGS). The Methodist presence took root in the 1890s with its purchase of several of the grand houses at the top of the hill. Methodist Girls’ School, which started as a Tamil girls’ school in a shophouse on Short Street, made a move up the hill in 1925, staying until 1992. It wasn’t the first school to be established on the hill. That would have been St. Margaret’s whose presence on the hill as Chinese Girls’ School goes back to 1861.

Wesley House, at No. 5 Mount Sophia, which was acquired by the Methodist Mission in 1894.

The Methodist Girls School complex, used as a centre for the arts while awaiting redevelopment.

The former Methodist Girls School complex, used as a centre for the arts in 2010 while awaiting redevelopment.

On the other peak, Mount Emily, its rather flat and elongated top must have made it a perfect spot to play host to a service reservoir. One was put there in the late 1870s to supply treated water to the municipality. It was to be made redundant by the much larger Fort Canning Reservoir in 1929. The reservoir was then turned into Singapore’s first public swimming pool around which the beautifully set Mount Emily Park was established. The pool opened in 1931 and was in use until the early 1980s with it serving as the setting for the qualification of Singapore’s very first woman lifeguard, Miss Ann Tay, in February 1952.

Lambert Mount Emily

A G R Lambert photograph of the reservoir on top of Mount Emily taken from Osborne House.

A large residence, humble by the standards of Eu Villa or Adis Lodge, Osborne House, made its appearance near the top of Mount Emily about the same time the reservoir was completed. The house does have its fair share of stories. Perched on a part of the hill that could be seen from Middle Road, it served for a while as a symbol to the sizeable pre-war Japanese community who were centered on Middle Road (Chuo Dori to the community) as the Japanese consulate. There also seems a connection to the Sultan of Siak. More about Osborne House’s rather intriguing past can be found in an earlier post, A Last Reminder of an Old-fashioned Corner of Singapore.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

Osborne House today, known to us now as "Emily Hill".

Osborne House today, known to us now as “Emily Hill”.

Farquhar’s “Hills of Babylon”, Mount Emily and neighbouring Mount Sophia, have a very different beast now to contend with these days. Much of the magic that motivated the construction of residences such as Adis Lodge and Eu Villa has sadly, long been lost, taken away by the wall of glass, steel and concrete that now surrounds much of the hills. The “trees” of the new estate are ones that are mostly grey. The yields they give is gold that is of great value in the concrete plantation that much of Singapore has become.

Tower House at the top of the southern slop of Mount Sophia. A wall of concrete, glass and still has obscured part of the view it once commanded.

Tower House at the top of the southern slope of Mount Sophia. A wall of concrete, glass and still has obscured part of the view it once commanded.

On the hill tops are but a few survivors of the high life, one Tower House on Mount Sophia is a conserved structure. The future of Osborne House on Mount Emily, is much less certain and it may be a matter of time before it and the many connections it has with an especially interesting past are forever lost.

The wall around Mount Sophia seen from Prinsep Street.

The wall around Mount Sophia seen from Prinsep Street. Flint’s house may have been located in the area now blocked by the School of the Arts (SOTA).

Walls of concrete, glass and steel around Mount Emily.

Walls of concrete, glass and steel around Mount Emily. The roofs of Olson Building and Tower House at the top of Mount Sophia at the upper left part of the photograph can barely be seen. Mount Emily is in the centre of the photo and Mount Caroline on the extreme right.


Notes:


Published in “Natural History Drawings: The Complete William Farquhar Collection, Malay Peninusla 1803-1818”.


“The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia: The inalienable gift of territory”.


The Ellison Building at the foot of one of the three sisters, Mount Emily

A report in this morning’s edition of the Straits Times reveals that part of the Ellison Building, a very distinctive conserved building at the corner of Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road near the foot of Mount Emily, will be demolished and reconstructed due to the construction of the North-South Corridor. The part that will be affected is along Bukit Timah Road with units 235, 237 and 239 to be demolished. This follows on an earlier report in the Chinese language Lianhe Zaobao article on 7 August 2016 that first broke the news of the building being affected. In the earlier report, it was mentioned that only “part of the (building’s) façade” would be affected. The Ellisons, Issac and Flora, had their home at 87 Wilkie Road, another of the grand residences that found their way on the slopes of Mounts Sophia and Emily. The residence, was demolished in the 1980s and a multi-storey residential development was put in its place and the Ellison Building is what’s left to remember them.

A view over the Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road junction with the part of the Ellison Building (the curved building in the lower right) that will be affected facing the viewer.

A view over the Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road junction with the part of the Ellison Building (the curved building in the lower right) that will be affected facing the viewer.

Incidentally, the entrance to the upper level one of the units being affected, 237, is where one find the words “I. Ellison” or Issac Ellsion – the man who had the building constructed, on a sign above it. This makes the demolition of this part of the building, even if it is to be reconstructed, even more tragic.

The five-foot-way of the Ellison Building where one of the units that will be demolished and then reconstructed, No. 237. A sign on top of the gateway is marked with "I. Ellison" or Issac Ellison - the man who had the building constructed.

The five-foot-way of the Ellison Building where one of the units that will be demolished and then reconstructed, No. 237. A sign on top of the gateway is marked with “I. Ellison” or Issac Ellison – the man who had the building constructed.


 








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