Calling an end to one cycle of time for the Ellison Building

3 09 2016

As if to foretell the end in a cycle of time for the Ellison Building, and the beginning of another, the mayura, a peacock – a mythological representation of the cycle of time, has made an appearance just across Bukit Timah Road from it. In the peacock’s view is the side the building whose time is at it end; an end that is being brought about by the intended construction of the North-South Expressway right under it.

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That a decision was taken to demolish a portion of a building that has been gazetted for conservation is hard to fathom. Protection through conservation, so it seems, counts for very little when the development of national infrastructure is a justification. Constraints of space due to what already exists underground has forced the authorities concerned to take this unfortunate decision. The section that will be demolished, which contains three units along Bukit Timah Road, will be reconstructed and reinstated to the building original design after the expressway is completed in 2026.

The decision caught the public unawares, first coming to light on 7 August 2016. The Chinese language daily Lianhe Zaobao, in an article on the construction of the expressway, made mention that part of the building’s “façade” was to be demolished and reinstated. Further information was then provided by a Straits Times 18 August 2016 report and much shock and disappointment has been expressed [see: Rebuilding parts of heritage building not the answer (Letter to the Straits Times, 18 August 2016), the Singapore Heritage Society’s 18 August 2016 Statement on Ellison Building, and ICOMOS Singapore’s 2 September Statement on the Proposed Demolition and Reconstruction of Part of Ellison Building].

The old style Hup Chiang kopitiam at the Ellison Building, now occupied by a Teochew porridge restaurant.

The news is also upsetting considering that the Ellison is one of the last survivors of the landmarks that once provided the area with its identity. Old Tekka Market, an focal point for many heading to the area in its day, has long since left us. Its replacement, housed at the bottom of a HDB built podium development built across the road from the old market, lacks the presence of the old  – even if the complex towers over the area. The complex sits on the site of another missing landmark, the Kandang Kerbau Police Station. One still there but now well hidden from sight is the Rochor Canal. Flavoursome in more ways than one, the canal would often mentioned in the same breath as any reference that was made to the area. Looking a little worse for war and dwarfed by much of what now surrounds it, the Ellison building with its distinctive façade, still makes its presence felt.

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers of Singapore.

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers Singapore.

The Ellison building is one of three structures found in the area on which the Star of David proudly displayed, the others being the David Elias building and the Maghain Aboth synagogue at Waterloo Street. Placed between the 19 and 24 on its Selegie Road façade that gives the year of its completion, it tells of a time we have forgotten when the area  was the Mahallah to the sizeable Arab speaking Baghdadi Jewish community. Described as having a feel of old Baghdad, the Mahallah was where the likes of Jacob Ballas and Harry Elias, just two of the communities many illustrious children, spend their early years in. Another link to its origins is an “I. Ellison” one finds over the entrance to No. 237 – one of the units that will be demolished. This serves to remind us of Isaac Ellison who had the building erected, apparently, for his wife Flora. 

The building seems also to have a long association with one of Singapore’s biggest obsessions, food. One food outlet that goes back as far as the building is Singapore’s oldest Indian Vegetarian restaurant, Ananda Bhavan (which still operates there). It was one of two vegetarian places that I remember seeing from my days passing the building on my daily rides home on the bus as a schoolboy. I would look out for the eye-catching displays of brightly coloured milk candy, neatly arranged on the shelves of wooden framed glass cabinets and also the restaurants’ old fashioned counters. Another sight that I never failed to notice was the mama shop along the five-foot-way and its stalk of bananas on display from which bananas would be plucked and purchased individually.

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A lost reminder of the past, an old fashioned Indian Vegetarian restaurant that has since been replaced by a popular nasi lemak shop.

The units that housed the vegetarian restaurants are fortunately on the side along Selegie Road. This will not be affected by the expressway construction and is housed within a larger part of the building that is not being demolished. This is something that should perhaps be looked at positively as unlike the regretful loss of whole places and structures that we have become accustomed to – so that they can keep our world moving,  the Ellison, because of it conservation status will not totally be lost.

Previous instance of moving our world too far and too fast, and in a direction not everyone is comfortable with, we have bid farewell to well loved structures such as the people’s National Theatre, the much-loved National Library, and what probably counts as Singapore’s first purpose built hawker centre – the Esplanade Food Centre.

We have also parted company in more recent times with places such as the remnants of the historic Mount Palmer and  a part of the Singapore’s first polytechnic. Both were flattened earlier this year to allow the final phase of the Circle Line MRT to be completed. Another historic site, Bukit Brown cemetery, has also lost some of its inhabitants to a highway that is being built through it. There is also the case of the proposed Cross Island Line’s proposed alignment that will take it under what should rightfully be an untouchable part of Singapore – the Central Catchment Nature. Of concern is the site  investigation work that will be carried out and its potential for long term damage to the flora and fauna of the nature reserve.

The regret of allowing places such as the National Library and National Theatre to pass into history is still felt. Whatever is intended for the Ellison is something we similarly will regret. Let us hope that the regret is not also one of setting a precedent in the resolution of conflicts to come between conservation and the need for development.


Other views of the Ellison Building over the years found online:

Part of the Selegie Road face of Ellison Building, possibly in the 1980s (snowstorm snowflake on Panoramio).

The Ellison Building, seen from across the then opened Rochor Canal in 1969 (Bill Strong on Flickr).


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Canal-less Rochor

8 08 2016

Even if it is probably for the better, I shall miss seeing the now covered up Rochor Canal in my drives down the Tekka area. Buried under a temporary roadway deck for much of the period during which the Downtown MRT line was being constructed, it has already been all but forgotten and it was only the sight of the green grass that now grows on top of a permanent deck that has given me the realisation that I will never see the open canal at this stretch.

A view over the now hidden canal.

Never a pretty sight even after the river cleanup initiative launched in 1977 took away the smell that was the source of many a joke, the canal was however, one of the sights that broke the monotony of the long ride to school on the public bus. That always seemed much to take in around the area by the canal, particularly on its then stepped sides, including the sight of squatting people scrubbing their laundry.

The once open Rochor Canal, seen at the meeting of Serangoon, Selegie, Sungei, Rochor Canal and Bukit Timah Roads (National Archives Photo).

The deck of green grass is the latest addition to an area that already looks very different to the one I passed as a schoolboy. The transformation of the area, which has seen the likes of the familiar old Tekka market, Kandang Kerbau Police Station, and Stamford Estate go, as well as Kandang Kerbau Hospital move – its former premises now occupied by the Land Transport Authority, is however not complete.

An online Straits Times photo of the canal with the old Tekka Market on the right.

The canal with its stepped sides (Raymond Morris on Flickr). The SIT flats of Stamford Estate, Albert House and Rochor House can also be seen.

In a city that never rests – from a construction viewpoint, the next upheaval planned for the area is already on the cards – the construction of the North-South Expressway (NSE). That will see the much loved Rochor Centre demolished. It does also seem that, from the a Zaobao article on 7 August 2016, the NSE’s construction will also see one of the more recognisable old structures in the area still standing – the Ellison Building affected. Part of the façade of the conserved building, built by Issac or Ike Ellison for his wife Flora in 1924, will apparently have to be removed and will have to be restored. The NSE is expected to be completed in 2026.

The Ellison Building will have part of its façade removed and restored for the NSE construction.

The Ellison Building will have part of its façade removed and restored for the NSE construction.

The open Rochor Canal at the Tekka area with the Ellison Building in the background c. 1969 (Bill Strong on Flickr).





Open up a box full of memories at the library

14 04 2013

As part of the Singapore Memory Project (SMP), an exhibition, “My Home, My Library” is being held at the Public Libraries. The exhibition which runs from 25 March to 29 April showcases many precious memories which have contributed by residents of each of the neighbourhoods the libraries are in, with the aim of serving as memory triggers to help more Singaporeans to add to the 830,000 pledges and contributions made thus far to the SMP.

Visitors can take a photo at the exhibition or of themselves at a photo wall, share it on Twitter or Instagram with a #sgmemory hashtag, in order to stand a chance to win up to $200 weekly.

The My Home, My Library exhibition offers visitors a chance to take a photo at the exhibition or of themselves at a photo wall and to share it on Twitter or Instagram to stand a chance of winning up to $200 weekly.

The biscuit tin of keepsakes and memories at the Library @ Esplanade.

The biscuit tin of keepsakes and memories at the library@esplanade.

At the exhibition, visitors will open a biscuit tin of memories, in the way that their parents or grandparents might have opened their tins and boxes with their mementos and keepsakes stashed in them, through a huge human height biscuit tin (which resembles a popular brand of biscuits many would have been familiar with). There are some 500 memories in the tinboxes found across all the libraries and in them, there may perhaps be some which could evoke a memory stashed away somewhere.

Front and Back Covers of the "Log Book" that I used.

My own tinbox of keepsakes includes a book bought from the bookshops along Bras Basah Road.

The exhibition offers visitors a chance not just to relive precious moments but also to win attractive prizes every week in the Snap & Share social media contest. All that is needed is for visitors to take a photograph of an interesting exhibit or of themselves at the photo wall (which has on its backdrop an image of the respective neighbourhood in days past), and share it via Twitter or Instagram hash-tagged with #sgmemory to stand a chance to win up to $200 in shopping vouchers on a weekly basis. What’s more, the most retweeted tweet will win a prize of $50 in shopping vouchers!

The memory submission stand.

The Memory Submission Stand.

Visitors will also have a chance to submit their memories at the Memory Submission Stand – fashioned from a large scale version of the all familiar Carnation Milk tin. Kids will also have a chance to stamp their mark at the at the Kids’ Stamping Station – I know stamping was one of my favourite activities as a child. There are 6 different locally inspired rubber stamp designs and kids can either bring that stamping work home or contribute their work towards the SMP.

The Kids' Stamping Station - surely a hit with kids.

The Kids’ Stamping Station – surely a hit with kids.

In conjunction with My Home, My Library the libraries also organised a couple of tours involving small groups of bloggers. I got a chance to bore a few bloggers all of whom were a lot younger than me, taking them to places in and around the library@esplanade in a nostalgia tour last Saturday. The places involved some which were close to  my heart and some in which I am still able to find memories of times which would otherwise have been forgotten. The places were ones which I hoped could also trigger the memories of the four bloggers who came along.

A stop on the nostalgia tour - the Children Little Museum.

A stop on the nostalgia tour – the Children Little Museum.

The first stop on the tour was at the NParks roving exhibition “Playsets of Yesteryears” currently at Raffles Place. In spite of the rain, we spotted a little girl in a raincoat determined to have a go at one of the swing sets. That brought back not just memories of playing in many similar playgrounds in my swinging sixties (and seventies), but also of times looking forward to the rain so as to play in the falling rain, splashing in the puddles and wading in the flood waters (I still sometimes look forward to doing some of that!). The installation has been organised by the National Parks Board (NParks) for the commemoration of 50 years of Greening Singapore and is in collaboration with the SMP. More on the installation and where it can be seen at can be found in a previous post The 1970s playground reinterpreted.

The temporary Playsets of Yesteryears at Raffles Place.

The temporary Playsets of Yesteryears installation at Raffles Place.

From Raffles Place, a place which holds a lot more memories of days shopping at Robinson’s and John Little’s and having chicken pies around the corner, we boarded a bus which took us to the next stop, Albert Centre. There we had a look at a wet market and at some street traders along the pedestrian mall at Waterloo Street. The market isn’t one that I had my main wet market experiences at, but as all wet markets are, they are (or at least the used to be) where life revolves around, as well as providing a multi-sensory experience with their sights, colours, sounds and even smells. The market at Albert Centre is one which probably carries with it the memories of what the streets around used to hold, the original vendors having moved into the residential cum commercial Housing and Development Board (HDB) complex when it was completed in 1980, having been displaced from the street markets at Queen Street  and Albert Street by urban redevelopment efforts which swept across the area at the end of the 1970s.

A vegetable vendor at the wet market.

A vegetable vendor at the wet market.

Markets were always fascinating places for me, until that is, when a vendor’s daughter pushed me into a basin of salted vegetables. It is in the markets that I find many of the memories I have of my childhood, although the sights, sounds (one particular sound was that of the cha-kiak – wooden clogs on the wet floor) and smells may now be a little different. Many revolved around live chickens, seeing them in cages, being chosen, weighed, slaughtered and de-feathered and occasionally being carried home alive, struggling in brown paper bags with red and white strings. There are many more memories I have which I do have some posts previously written on.

One particular memory I have of is mutton butchers towering over their huge log chopping blocks at Tekka Market (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

One particular memory I have of is mutton butchers towering over their huge log chopping blocks at Tekka Market (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

Just next to Albert Centre is a concentration of street traders at the end of  Waterloo Street and Albert Mall. The area sees high pedestrian traffic because of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho and the Sri Krishnan Temples in the area which attracts a lot of devotees. Their presence there harks back to days when similar traders were commonly found on many other streets and one can find Chinese medicine men (that were especially common at pasar malams), fortune tellers, cobblers, as well as what one might expect, food, devotional objects and flower vendors.

A fortune teller's stand along Waterloo Street.

A fortune teller’s stand along Waterloo Street.

From Albert Centre, we headed to Bras Basah Complex, another HDB residential cum commercial that came up in 1980 – this without a wet market. The complex was also one which took in many traders from the area it is in. This included the many watch dealers, book, optician and stationery shops that occupied the shophouses that were cleared on North Bridge Road and the bookshops that the shophouses at Bras Basah Road between Waterloo and Bencoolen Streets were well visited for. Those bookshops were where I got my textbooks and revision books such as the ever so popular “ten-year-series” from and their move in 1980s drew many of us who went to school in the area to Bras Basah Complex. While many of the original bookshops have moved out, there are some of the other original stores that remain including some old school stationery shops (where we could get not just stationery but calculators, sports goods and harmonicas) and watch shops which take us back to its early days. Of the watch shops – it was from a similar one in Katong Shopping Centre where I obtained my very first wrist watch, an Otis for $70 back in 1976.

An old school watch dealer at Bras Basah Complex.

An old school watch dealer at Bras Basah Complex.

The next stop we had was Esplanade Park, better known as Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk in the days when it was a popular outing spot to catch the sea breeze and indulge after in some satay and chendol. Back then walks in the evening were always interesting, not just for the sea breeze, the flicker of lights of the ships in the distance, or the beam of light from Fullerton Light that swept across the harbour, but also for the many traders scattered around the promenade. There were the usual kacang putih man, the balloon vendor who supported his colourful air-filled balloons with long tubular ones, and the snake charmer.

In search of the satay club at the Esplanade.

Bloggers +1 in search of the satay club at the Esplanade.

No longer there are the satay club which was at the location from 1971 to 1995, having moved from its original spot at Hoi How Road where we would sit at low tables on low stools and where satay would be piled up on a plate and charging was by the number of sticks consumed, as well as the semi-circular laid out Esplanade Food Centre which went in 1980 and which was possibly Singapore’s first built hawker centre coming up in the 1950s, which had been well known for its chendol. However, there are several memories including the Tan Kim Seng Fountain which used to serve as a marker of the former Satay Club, as well as another first – Singapore’s very first pedestrian underpass (as well as non surface pedestrian crossing) built in 1964 which connects Empress Place with the Esplanade.

Composite photograph of the Satay Club (and Esplanade Food Centre) and Esplanade Park today.

Composite photograph of the Satay Club (and Esplanade Food Centre) and Esplanade Park today.

From Esplanade Park, we moved next to the library@esplanade for the My Home, My Library exhibition there – that provided not just a look at the tinbox of memories but also provided some welcome relief for what was an extremely hot and sweaty morning. From that it was a drive by of the former site of the New Seventh Storey Hotel, and the DHL Balloon, which some may remember as landmarks (the DHL Balloon for a short while) in the Bugis/Rochor area, enroute to the Children Little Museum on Bussorah Street which holds in its toy shop full of old school toys and its museum of many full memories, many reminders of my (if not the other bloggers’) childhood. The toy shop and museum does also provide an appreciation perhaps of childhood toys and games over the generations – from simple cheap to make toys and low cost games, many a result of invention and improvisation, to more expensive and sophisticated ones, to the handheld electronic games which made an appearance in the late 1970s – the predecessors of the handheld video game consoles of today.

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There was time at the end of the tour and before the heavy downpour that was to come, to have lunch nearby. That was at the Seow Choon Hua Restaurant at Sultan Gate, popular for its Fuzhou (Foochow) dishes including Foochow fish ball noodles – which I had. There was also some time for me to share my experiences accompanying my maternal grandmother on a trishaw to the area nearby – Arab Street to be precise, an area she referred to a “Kampong Jawa” (as the area hosted a Javanese community), to do her shopping for items such as batik sarongs and bedak sejuk (powder sold in tablet  form). The street then as it is now, plays hosts to many textile shops – a reminder of a time it was common to have clothes made-to-measure. While such shops in other areas have gone – the popularity of ready-to-wear clothes from the late 1970s onwards meant that demand for textiles fell. Many such shops, especially those found in Toa Payoh Central, turned to selling ready-to-wear clothes and a large concentrations of them are now found only on Arab Street.

Foochow Fishball Noodles at Seow Choon Hua.

Foochow Fishball Noodles at Seow Choon Hua.


About My Home, My Library:

The Singapore Memory Project presents “My Home, My Library” – a nationwide exhibition showcasing personal memories contributed by residents of each neighbourhood. From library romances to tok-tok noodle carts and kampong life, each memory tells a unique story that forms a portrait of our home and our libraries. Take a peek into our treasure trove of stories and share some of your own precious memories with your fellow residents. For more information, please click here. My Home, My Library runs at all public libraries (except for Geylang East which is under renovation) until 29 April 2013.


About the Singapore Memory Project (SMP):

The SMP is a national initiative started in 2011 to collect, preserve and provide access to Singapore’s knowledge materials, so as to tell the Singapore Story. It aims to build a national collection of content in diverse formats (including print, audio and video), to preserve them in digital form, and make them available for discovery and research.

Currently, members of the public can submit their memories for the project by”


Do also read about the impressions My Home, My Library left on some of the other bloggers: