The “attractive” 1940 built public-housing block in Little India

23 11 2018

I have long admired the building that houses The Great Madras, a boutique hotel on Madras Street. The edifice in its incarnations as a hotel has brought a touch of Miami to the shophouse lined streets of a busy corner of Serangoon. The opportunity to have a look beyond the building’s gorgeous Streamline-Moderne façade came this Architectural Heritage Season with tours organised by the URA. The hotel won an Architectural Heritage Award for the efforts made in the restoration of the building,

Deliciously decorated, the hotel’s common areas on the ground floor provide a great introduction to its well thought of interiors. The lobby and a restaurant and bar, which opens up to the outside is what first greets visitors. There is also a barber shop and a utility area at the building’s rear. A sliding privacy door hides the hostel-like accommodation on the same floor. Here, its private sleeping spaces carry the names of established travel influencers.

The reception area.

The hotel’s rooms are laid out across the building’s two upper floors. Corridors decorated with quirky neon signs and ventilated through the steel-framed glass windows of a forgotten era, provide correspondence to the rooms. It is along a corridor on the second floor that a pleasant surprise awaits. This takes the form of an especially delightful and photograph-able view of the hotel’s retrofitted swimming pool, framed by a circular opening in the pastel pink party wall that separates the pool from its sun deck.

A corridor on the upper levels.

The alterations made in the building’s interiors does make it hard to think of the building having been put to any other use other than the current, and quite certainly not as a public-housing block of flats it was built as in early 1940, There is of course that Tiong Bahru-esque appearance and quality that may give the fact away but the standalone nature of the block will mask the fact that it was the Singapore Improvement Trust or SIT that built it. The SIT – the predecessor to the HDB – besides having had the task of addressing the demand for public housing, also took on the role of town planner. The public housing projects that it embarked on tended to be built in clusters, such as in the case of Tiong Bahru.

The rear courtyard.

The swimming pool.

There is however a good reason for the Madras Street block’s isolation. A 1940 report made by the SIT holds the clue to this. It turns out that the block – erected to take in the area’s residents displaced by the demolition of older buildings – was meant to have been part of a larger improvement scheme that the SIT had planned for the area. The scheme was to have seen the demolition of a dozen “old and unsanitary” buildings in the months that would follow  to provide for a southeasterly extension of Campbell Lane past Madras Street. There was also to have been the metalling of the area’s roads and the construction of much-needed drains. The orientation and alignment of the 70 by 60 feet block does suggest that it was laid out with the extension of Campbell Lane in mind.

A view of the surroundings through steel framed windows.

The scheme’s overall aim was to provide accommodation in greater numbers, make an improvement in (transport) communication and the layout of of the very congested area. There was also a need to address the area’s poor sanitary conditions. It is quite evident from what we see around that the scheme did not go much further. Perhaps it may have been a lack of funds, as it was with many public schemes in those days. There was also the intervention of the war, which was already being fought in Europe by the time of the block was completed.

Another view of the hotel’s windows.

From the report, we also get a sense of the “attractive” building’s original layout. Three flats were found on each floor, hence the three addresses 28, 30 and 32, giving the building a total of nine flats. Each flat contained three rooms, one of which would have been a living room that opened to the balcony. A kitchen cum dining room was provided in each flat, as well as a bathroom and a toilet – “in accordance with Municipal Commissioners’ requirements”.

A spiral staircase in the rear courtyard.

The report also tells us of how much the flats, which were fully booked before the building’s completion, were rented out for: $23 per month for ground floor units and $26 per month for the units on the upper floors.

More on the restoration efforts that won the Great Madras Hotel the award: 28, 30 & 32 Madras Street Charming Revival.

Restored granolithic (Shanghai Plaster) finishing on the column bases.


More photographs:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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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).






Colours of the harvest

15 01 2016

The Tamil month of Thai brings much celebration to Singapore where a large majority of its Indian population is of Tamil ancestry. One festival that brings colour to the streets of Little India is Pongal, the celebration of the winter harvest over four days. The streets are particularly lively in the lead-up to the festival as decorated clay pots, sweets, flower garlands and sugar-cane (which I am told signifies sweetness and longevity) fill up Campbell Street – where the annual Pongal bazaar is set up.

Sugarcane - signifying sweetness and longevity.

Sugarcane – signifying sweetness and longevity.

More on the festival can be found on my previous posts, as well as on Your Singapore. A description of the festival by Mr Manohar Pillai is also provided on a post on the Facebook Group “On a Little Street in Singapore“:

Pongal is the biggest and most important festival for the Tamilians, since ancient times and transcends all religious barriers since it signifies thanks giving to nature and domestic animals. Cattle, cows, goats, chickens are integral part of a farmer in India. It is celebrated for three days in Tamilnadu starting from 15th to 17th. Jan’, 2016. and strictly vegetarian food will be served only in all Hindu households. Thanks giving prayers will be offered to the Sun, Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Ether, without these life cannot be sustained on Mother Earth. The celebrations comes on close to the harvest season which just ended and Jan,15, is the beginning of the new Tamil calendar.

Clay Pots are used to cook flavoured rice with traditional fire wood in the open air and facing the early morning Eastern Sun. The Sun’s early morning rays are supposedly to bring benevolence to the household. The cooked rice is distributed to all the members of the household and with it the festivities begins. Everyone wears new clothes and very old and useless clothes are burnt the previous night.

The next day the farmer turns his attention to the animals especially the Cattle and Cows.

The third day all people celebrate it with gaiety and grandly.

Decorated Clay Pots.

Decorated Clay Pots.

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Sweets for the sweet.

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A bazaar stall doing a roaring trade.

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A well stocked shop.

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A dairy cow.

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Campbell Lane dressed for Pongal.

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More sugarcane.

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Flower garlands on sale.

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The festive atmosphere also spill over to the nearby streets.





An annual invasion of sugarcane

14 01 2014

Photographs taken in the heart of the Serangoon area on the eve of Pongal, one of the many colourful expressions of the various cultures found in Singapore that living on the island provides an opportunity to immerse oneself in. Pongal is a harvest festival that is celebrated over four days. Originating in southern India, the festival sees the streets off Serangoon Road come alive with celebration with much of the activity centered on a Campbell Lane invaded seemingly by stalks of sugarcane.

Campbell Lane is where a Pongal bazaar annually paints the street in the colours of the harvest, seen in the purple of black sugarcane, the green of bananas, ginger and turmeric leaves, as well as in the colours of the earth from traditional clay pots. Hard to miss is also the orange and gold of sweet treats and the burst of joy that the floral garlands bring, mixed with the hues of the many who throng the streets in search of the essentials for the festival. 

More on the festival and how it is being commemorated in Singapore can be found at the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association’s website.

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Soonambu Kambam welcomes the month of Thai

11 01 2014

Soonambu Kambam, the “Village of Lime” or “Little India” as the people in the tourism board would like us to know it takes on a festive appearance this time of the year as it prepares to welcome the Tamil month of Thai, the first day of which falls on 14 January 2014, a day when Thai Pongal is celebrated. Another festival to look out for in the month of Thai is Thaipusam, which falls on 17 January this year.

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Pongal is a harvest festival that is celebrated mainly by the Tamil community in Singapore and brings Campbell Lane (and Hastings Road this year) to life – with a bazaar coloured by steel and earthen pots, as well as lots of festivities in the lead up to the festival – which is celebrated over a four day period, and during the festival to look out for. The celebrations in the Village of Lime starts today along with a street light-up along Serangoon Road (the light-up will be up to the end of January). For more information on the festival and festivities, do visit the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association’s website.

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Multilevel conversations

28 12 2013

Conversations, taking place at different levels, as observed at the Masjid Angullia (Anguilla Mosque) located at Serangoon Road. The mosque was built on wakaf land donated by the prominent Angullia family. Although the main building we see today is one that is from rather recent times, having been put up in 1970, the entrance gatehouse we do also see today is one which is associated with the previous building (which was demolished in September 1969) and has been put up for conservation under the recently released URA Draft Master Plan 2013. The previous building was thought to have been put up before 1898 on land provided in 1890 by Mohammed Salleh Eussoof Angullia, a trader who had come to Singapore in 1850 from Gujarat in India. More information on the mosque can be found at the MUIS website.

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The call to prayer.

The call to prayer.

The gatehouse which has been put up for conservation, seen with the crowd after sunset prayers.

The gatehouse which has been put up for conservation, seen with the crowd after sunset prayers.

The main mosque building - put up in 1970.

The main mosque building – put up in 1970.