Mount Washington, an old world restored

17 02 2015

It will probably come as no surprise the elevated and lush green surroundings provided by the south facing slopes of Singapore’s southern ridges, with the magnificent views of the coastline it offers, plays host to several palatial residences of an old and forgotten Singapore. One that has seen some of its lost glory recently restored, is a majestic two-storey house perched on Telok Blangah Hill, Alkaff Mansion. Once a weekend escape belonging to the very prominent Alkaff family, the mansion stands today as reminder of a world we long have left behind.

The Alkaff Mansion, restored to its former glory.

The Alkaff Mansion, restored to its former glory.

The mansion, referred to as “merely one of the Alkaff family’s weekend bungalows” and situated “at the end of a long road winding from Pasir Panjang Road through the country”, is described in an article in the 16 September 1934 edition of The Straits Times:

It commands a unique view of the coast, the city and indeed, almost the entire island … Viewed from the bottom of a steep drive leading through the well-kept grounds to the foot of a long flight of stone steps, Mount Washington looks large. It has a broad façade and at each end are two turrets. On the ground floor, a verandah leads to a long narrow dining room. Behind the dining room are the servants’ quarters. On the second floor is another verandah, another long room and behind it one large and two small bedrooms … 

It is not very liberally furnished but the verandah on the first floor is a most refreshing retreat, armchairs and settees of teak having blue tapestry fittings. There are many gilt-framed photographs on easels in the house, also many heavy gilt and Venetian mirrors …

With its semi-circular white stone balustrade at the top of the bank on which it is built, its stately firs and its view, it is a most tempting place to live.

Alkaff house seen in its heyday in the 1920s (National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

Standing on the terrace where the house stands today, it would not be difficult to imagine how grand appearance it might have appeared at the time of the article, when it was known as Mount Washington – the name the hill also seemed at some point in time to have been referred to. The article also makes mention of a garden party the Alkaffs hosted in June of that year. The party, which had over 400 guests on Mount Washington’s grounds, was held to celebrate the appointment as a Justice of the Peace, of the Alkaffs’ General Manager, Haji Shaikh Yahya bin Ahmad Afifi.

The staircase leading up to the terrace.

The staircase leading up to the terrace.

While there have several suggestions that property had so been named due to the close relations the Alkaffs had with the American community, it does seem that its had been called Mount Washington even before Syed Abdulrahman Alkaff purchased the property for $32,000 in 1916 (see “Property Sale“, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 21 June 1916, Page 12). Advertisements placed in the local press show that a mortgagee had made several attempts since the end of 1913 to dispose of Mount Washington, several years before it was purchased by Syed Abdulrahman Alkaff.

A newspaper advertisement for the sale of Mount Washington in 1916.

A newspaper advertisement for the sale of Mount Washington in 1916.

Whether it was from the property, the grounds of which was “planted with rubber trees and also coconut trees”, that the name of hill would be derived from, is also a source of debate. Previously known as Bukit Jagoh, there are several references made to the hill as Mount Washington in newspaper reports that go back to 1908.

A view of the building's side.

A view of the building’s side.

The mansion, as is laid out today, is thought to originate to 1926 and since its heydays in the 1920s and 1930s has experienced a mixed bag of fortunes, having been abandoned after the war. It was to see use again in 1970  when it served as the headquarters of the World Buddhist Society. In 1984, the society had to vacate the premises when it was acquired for an extension to Mount Faber Park and it was only at the end of the 1980s that some of its former majesty was to be restored, when it was converted into a restaurant.

The former weekend residence of the Alkaffs is now a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

The former weekend residence of the Alkaffs is now a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

Unfortunately, the restaurant closed in 2003 and it was left vacant until an exercise in 2010 by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) resulted in a lease being taken up by the LHN Group. The group has since restored the now conserved mansion (it was gazetted for conservation by the URA in 2005) beautifully and since the end of 2011, has operated a fine dining Italian restaurant on the premises – serving to reminds us of days of glory that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The former Alkaff house in the 1980s after the World Buddhist Society vacated it (National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

The former Alkaff House used as the headquarters  of the World Buddhist Society.

The former Alkaff House was used as the headquarters of the World Buddhist Society (Radin Mas Heritage Guide).





Digging the Empress up in search of Singapura

14 02 2015

Just six months or so after the dust seemed to have settled on Empress Place with completion of a four-year long refurbishment of the now almost too clean looking Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, the dust levels seem to be rising again. Since 2 February, a huge hole has appeared in the shadow old Vic, one that is being dug so as to find pieces of our buried past.

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The archaeological excavation, the largest ever undertaken in Singapore, is organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) with the support of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of an effort to commemorate 31 years of archaeology in Singapore.

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The dig, right in a place that when I first came to know it was a car park, has unearthed artefacts that are thought to be highly significant that could possible date as far back as the 14th century. The finds in a previously archaeologically unexplored site, include pieces of porcelain and clay figurines that are thought to originate from as far away as China and  help provide an understanding of a Singapura that seemed to have been at the crossroads even before the British made it so.

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All aboard the RSS Endurance

12 02 2015

There is no better way of getting acquainted with some of what goes on on a naval ship than to have a first hand view of its operations. I got a chance to do just that on Monday, when at the invitation of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), I found myself out on the RSN’s largest vessel, the RSS Endurance for a voyage out to Raffles Reserved Anchorage for a look at her helicopter embarkation operations.

The RSS Endurance at berth at Changi Naval Base.

The RSS Endurance at berth at Changi Naval Base.

The helo-ops conducted to embark the Super Puma helicopter, was in anticipation of this weekend’s SAF50 @Vivo event. The event launches the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) year-long celebration of 50 years of its formation and will see the first of class 140 metre long Landing Ship Tank (LST) berth at the Vivo City Promenade to allow the lucky members of the public (who managed to get their hands on the highly sought after tickets) with a rare opportunity to have a look at the most versatile asset in the RSN’s fleet.

A view of the breakwater at Changi Naval Base with a glimpse of southeastern Malaysia in the background.

A view of the breakwater at Changi Naval Base with a glimpse of southeastern Malaysia in the background.

I always enjoy a trip out at sea, something I have been doing a lot of of late. Going out on the RSS Endurance was an added bonus for me, not just for the chance to see and photograph the navy in operation,  but also because it was a homecoming of sorts for me as had some involvement in her design during my days in the shipyard in which she was built – the last time I was on board was during trials that were conducted on her.

A view over the bow of the RSS Endurance towards the vastness of the sea.

A view over the bow of the RSS Endurance towards the vastness of the sea.

Besides taking those on the voyage to some of the operational areas on board, the visit also allowed us to see one of the RSS Endurance’s most important rooms, especially in the context of the Singaporean who tends to live to eat more than to eat to live – the galley. The galley, we learnt provides not just sustenance, but the cooks who the crew are often on personal terms with, work even in the nastiest of weather to help keep the morale up in serving up meals that includes many local favourites. Things did get a bit steamy during the visit to the galley, and we were quickly ushered to the cold room to cool off before settling down to a delicious lunch of nasi lemak that the galley specially prepared for our visit.

Things got a bit steamy ....

Things got a bit steamy ….

... so we had to cool off in the cold room.

… so we had to cool off in the cold room.

Along with the opportunity to witness the helo ops (helicopter operations), one more thing we got to see was of the operations to embark the vessel’s Fast Craft Utility (FCU) into the floodable dock on the vessel’s well-deck. The ability to launch fast landing craft and deploy helicopters are among the amazing array of capabilities, the RSS Endurance and her sister ships are equipped with. While the LSTs are designed primarily to support troop and equipment deployment, the capabilities also extend the ships’ capabilities to supporting a range of peacetime missions from disaster relief, search and rescue, and protection of merchant shipping.

One of the key capabilities the RSS Endurance has is being able to deploy fast landing craft through a stern opening from her well deck.

One of the key capabilities the RSS Endurance has is being able to deploy fast landing craft, Fast Craft Utility or FCU, through a stern opening from her well deck.

A Super Puma taking off at the Raffles Reserved Anchorage. Pulau Senang can be seen in the background.

A Super Puma taking off at the Raffles Reserved Anchorage. Pulau Senang can be seen in the background.

Designed and built by ST Marine, the Endurance class of LSTs proved to be particularly useful during the post 2004 Boxing Day tsunami relief efforts in Aceh. The fast landing craft launched from the vessels could be used to maximum advantage in reaching coastal locations that had been cut off in the wake of the disaster.

The city's skyline as seen from the Singapore Strait.

Enroute to Raffles Reserved Anchorage – the city’s skyline as seen from the Singapore Strait.

For those who missed the chance to win tickets to view this valuable asset in RSN’s fleet  through the online ballot, all is not lost. There would still be a chance to obtain tickets through a on-site draw. Balloting times slots for these are at 3 pm to 6 pm on Thursday and Friday; 9 am to 11 am, 12.30 pm to 2.30 pm, 4 pm to 6 pm on Saturday; and 9 am to 12 pm and 3 pm to 6 pm on Sunday. The winners of the ballot have the opportunity to have a glance at the Bridge, Flight Deck on which a Super Puma is tied down, and the steamy Galley. There is also the chance to ride the waves on one of the RSN’s Fast Craft Utility landing craft.

Smaller fast landing craft for personnel (FCEP - Fast Craft Equipment and Personnel) can be deployed over the shipside.

Smaller fast landing craft for personnel (FCEP – Fast Craft Equipment and Personnel) can be deployed over the shipside.

The cluster of islands at which Raffles first made contact with Singapore, with the Singapore he helped create in the background. St. John's Island is on the left with Lazarus Island and Kusu next to it.

Enroute to Raffles Reserved Anchorage – a view of the cluster of islands at which Raffles first made contact with Singapore, with the Singapore he helped create in the background. St. John’s Island is on the left with Lazarus Island and Kusu next to it.

The SAF50@Vivo event runs from 12 to 15 February 2015.  Besides the RSS Endurance, the capabilities of the other SAF’s services are also on display. Highlights of the event include a SAF50 launch and Total Defence Commemoration on 12 February at 5pm and a Weapons Presentation Ceremony on 15 February at 6pm, which members of the public can view from the Vivo City Level 3 Viewing Gallery. There are also a host of activities and daily performances. More information on the event and SAF50 can be found at www.saf50years.sg.

The helideck has two landing spots. A Super Puma embarked for the SAF50 @ Vivo event is seen here.

The helideck has two landing spots. A Super Puma embarked for the SAF50 @ Vivo event is seen here.

A FCU being manoeuvred for entry into the well deck.

A FCU being manoeuvred for entry into the well deck at Raffles Reserved Anchorage.


More photographs

Helo Ops

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Well Deck Ops

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The Galley

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The Bridge

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When the lights go out

10 02 2015

Last evening wasn’t what I would call a typical Monday evening. In some rather untypical company, after the lights went off, I stood waiting for a box containing a 15th century lady to be opened, showing little of the trepidation my irrational fears of the dark would typically have invoked; the promise the evening held was an unveiling of the lady’s exquisite beauty for her debut in Singapore.

A Portrait of a Lady, attributed to Ambrogio de Predis, an associate of Leonardo da Vinci.

A Portrait of a Lady, attributed to Ambrogio de Predis, an associate of Leonardo da Vinci.

Delicate but yet well preserved, the beauty of the lady of nobility, is one that is beautifully captured by an associate of Leonardo da Vinci,  Ambrogio de Predis. The portrait, one of several masterpieces from the da Vinci school that is making an appearance in Marina Bay Sands’ ArtScience Museum, as part of the Da Vinci: Shaping the Future exhibition that runs until May 2015. While the highlight of the exhibition is perhaps the pages out of da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus from Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana’s collection, the masterpieces the Ambrosiana has brought over, also deserve much attention.

Unscrewing the lid on the outer box in which the painting is packed for shipment. Paintings are packed into two boxes.

Unscrewing the lid on the outer box in which the painting is packed for shipment. Paintings are packed into two boxes.

The rather uninspiringly named “Portrait of a Lady” that had until the 19th century been attributed to da Vinci himself, goes on display for the first time from today. It is part of a changeover of inspiring art work and pages of the Codex at the midway point of the exhibition, made necessary by a three-month limit on exposing the original works, following which they have to be returned to the dark.

Lifting the lid on the inner box.

Lifting the lid on the inner box.

For a opportunity to celebrate beauty as expressed  in oil and to be awed by the genius of da Vinci contained in the pages of the Codex Atlanticus, do visit this wonderful look at what the museum refers to as history’s foremost ArtScientist, Leonardo da Vinci. The exhibition interestingly, also sees models of da Vinci’s innovative ideas on display.  The exhibition ends in May 2015. For more information and ticketing details, do visit the ArtScience Museum’s website.

Removing the artwork, which is wrapped in acid-free paper.

Removing the artwork, which is wrapped in acid-free paper.

Unwrapping the painting.

Unwrapping the painting.

The painting is examined for damage after being unpacked by an expert from Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. A report of an examination prior to packing is used as reference.

The painting is examined for damage after being unpacked by an expert from Biblioteca Ambrosiana. A report of an examination prior to packing is used as reference.

Examining the details.

Examining the details.

Once the expert is satisfied, the art work can be displayed.

Once the expert is satisfied, the art work can be displayed.

The painting, seen with one of the paintings that has been taken down for storage, Saiai's St. John the Baptist.

The painting, seen with one of the paintings that has been taken down for storage, Saiai’s St. John the Baptist.


More on the changeover (Art Science Museum Press Release):

Singapore (11 February 2015) – ArtScience Museum today unveiled its eagerly-anticipated renewal of the original masterpieces showcased at Da Vinci: Shaping the Future, as the exhibition approaches the second half of its run. The refreshed displays include a new collection of 13 original pages of the Codex Atlanticus, da Vinci’s largest notebook, and three new paintings from the School of da Vinci.

As part of the renewed collection, visitors will have the rare opportunity to view a neverbefore-seen original Codex Atlanticus page, Drawings of Two Compasses. This folio features two drawings of intricately decorated compasses, which were important tools employed by da Vinci to determine the proportions of his machines and to mark designs on paper before he applied ink to his drawings.

Another beautifully illustrated page in the renewed collection is the Giant Crossbow, one of da Vinci’s most striking and celebrated folios from the Codex Atlanticus. Drawn with elaborate details and technical skill, the folio includes precise measurements of the machine’s components and a figure atop the machine to provide an indication of the scale.

The Giant Crossbow is a prime example of how da Vinci used his artistic skills to illustrate complex technical concepts.

“More than any other figure in history, Leonardo da Vinci represents the unity of art and science. Therefore, it is a great privilege to be able to bring a new collection of da Vinci’s masterpieces to ArtScience Museum, as part of this groundbreaking exhibition. What is particularly exciting for us is that one of the pages from the Codex Atlanticus, which arrived from Italy this week, is being shown in public for the very first time. We are grateful to have been able to work so closely with Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana to realise an exhibition that vividly illustrates how da Vinci’s genius, creativity, and systems thinking continue to inspire and shape the world we live in now,” said Ms. Honor Harger, executive director of ArtScience Museum.

Dr Irene Lee, co-curator, ArtCORP Pte Ltd, adds, “It has been an honour to be a part of this project and to bring the original works by da Vinci from Milan to Singapore. Singapore, like da Vinci, is very forward-thinking, and it is only fitting to have these masterpieces displayed in this innovative city.”

One of the new original paintings that will be on display is the visually arresting Portrait of a Lady. Donated to the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in 1618, the painting was attributed to da Vinci until the 19th century. While the references to da Vinci are evident, such as the knotted golden braid on the lady’s garment, the mesmeric painting remains elusive as both its subject and author have yet to be confirmed despite generations of study by critics and scholars. While some leading scholars firmly attribute the painting to da Vinci and others favour a more prudent attribution, these controversies have never debased the work’s appeal, only increasing its mystery.

Other new paintings from the School of da Vinci that will be showcased are Christ Child with the Lamb by Bernardino Luini, the most famous Milanese painter in the early 16th century, and Adoration of the Child with Saint Roch by Giampietrino.






Still in the dark, where the darkness began this Sunday, 73 years ago

8 02 2015

In the darkness of a Sunday night, 73 years ago today, the end was to begin for Singapore. Just after 8 pm on 8 February 1942, the first wave of landings were made by Japanese troops  along the poorly defended and mangrove lined northwest coastline of the island.

In the dark: WWII landing site at Sarimbun Beach today with its fence to prevent a new invasion of  illegal immigrants and goods.

In the dark: WWII landing site at Sarimbun Beach today with its fence to prevent a new invasion of illegal immigrants and goods.

Defended by the ill prepared and poorly equipped Australian Imperial Forces’ 22nd Brigade, who were spread out thinly over a long stretch of the coastline, coupled with Percival’s misjudgement in focusing the defence of the island in its east, the area, the mangroves proved to be no barrier and the coast was very quickly overrun. The defence of Singapore was to fail miserably just a week later, a defeat that was to plunge Singapore in more than three years of darkness as the light of the Japanese Empire’s south.

“Sarimbun battle” by Unknown; original uploader was Grant65 at en.wikipedia. – Lionel Wigmore (1957) “Defence of Western Area” in Australia in the War of 1939–1945: Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (PDF), Canberra: Australian War Memorial, pp. 310 Transferred from en.wikipedia by Gorbi. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the area today is still shrouded in darkness. Cut-off from the rest of Singapore by its relative inaccessibility and isolation – much of it is off limits as a large part of it lies within the Live Firing Area (and even where it isn’t, there is a fence intended to keep the new invasion of illegal immigrants and goods out that also cuts us off from our seas), it is an area seemingly forgotten even if there are markers in place to commemorate an event that should remain in the minds of all of us in Singapore.

A page from the Australian Imperial Forces 2/20 Battalion unit diary. The 2/20 Battalion was defending the sector where Sarimbun Beach is at the time of the landings.

A page from the Australian Imperial Forces 2/20 Battalion unit diary. The 2/20 Battalion was defending the sector where Sarimbun Beach is at the time of the landings.

Japanese forces landing on Singapore on the night of 8 February 1942 (Australian War Memorial – Copyright Expired).


Related:

Japanese footage from the Romano Archives, 1942 The Taking of Singapore, which includes some landing scenes:

Another landing site, The Pier: A lost world in Lim Chu Kang






The magazine under Talbot’s Hill

7 02 2015

An area of Singapore that still has much history buried under it is the area where the former British Naval Base was. Under parts of the former base, which covered an area stretching from the Causeway in Woodlands to what is today Sembawang Park, lies several underground structures, one of which is a the so-called Attap Valley bunker that has recently been brought to light.

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker.

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker below Talbot’s Hill.

Worshipping a new religion? Participants on a heritage tour to the site examining part of a ventilation system.

Worshipping a new religion? Participants on a heritage tour to the site examining part of a ventilation system.

The bunker, opened to the public for the first time today, is the last surviving structure of an armament depot constructed by the British within the huge Naval Base in the Talbot’s Hill and Attap Valley area. A ammunition and armament storage magazine, specifically Magazine No. 4, it was one of seven other bomb-proof magazines that were built into Talbot’s Hill by the British before 1942.

An extract of a 1945 map of the Naval Base showing the area and the layout of the ammunition depot, including the seven magazines under Talbot's Hill.

An extract of a 1945 map of the Naval Base showing the area and the layout of the ammunition depot, including the seven magazines under Talbot’s Hill (click to enlarge).

The National Heritage Board (NHB), which has been studying the site since April 2014, has also established with the help of a 1945 map of the Naval Base, that the magazines were part of a network of eighteen bunkers, warehouses and workshops spread over the Attap Valley site, that formed the Royal Naval Armament Depot.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The passage to the storage area.

The passage to the storage area.

Evidence points to the magazine, which is the size of two 5-room HDB flats, being used by the Japanese during the occupation – a cache of Japanese weapons and ammunition was found by MINDEF when they used the site for the Sembawang Ammunition Depot.

The storage area where  corrugated ceiling reinforcements can be seen along with a gantry hoist.

The storage area where corrugated ceiling reinforcements can be seen along with a gantry hoist.

What appears to be a light fitting from the time of the bunker's construction.

What appears to be a light fitting from the time of the bunker’s construction mounted on the ceiling.

According to NHB, part of the floor of the bunker, now a mess of mud and water, would have had rail tracks running over them to allow the ammunition to be moved in and out, accounting for the rusty colour of the mud and water in the bunker. While there is nothing left of the tracks to be found, there are several fixtures and fittings that might have originally been there at the time of its completion. This includes vents from an all important ventilation system, light fixtures, and pipes. A travelling gantry hoist, complete with a sign giving its Safe Working Load rating, can be seen in the inner chamber where the ammunition would have been stored. Access into the inner chamber is via a curved passageway designed so as explosions could be contained.

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Talbot’s Hill and the surviving magazine under it now lies well within a fenced up area of land, which was returned to the State by  MINDEF when the depot was decommissioned in 2002. Access to it is only via the NHB tours, being organised as part of a Battle of Singapore commemoration that coincides with the 73 anniversary of the Fall of Singapore and also the 70 anniversary of the liberation in September 1945. More information on this, including the Case Files from the Singapore War Crimes Tribunal Exhibition scheduled to open next week at the National Museum of Singapore, can be found at the NHB website.

More photographs of the bunker and its surroundings

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Postscript
An account relating to the last days of the Royal Naval Armament Depot before the Fall of Singapore: A Singapore Story – 1942.


 





What colours the full moon of Thai

4 02 2015

Colouring the full moon during the Tamil month of Thai, which fell yesterday,  is the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.

The festival is celebrated with much fervour by the southern Indian communities of Singapore and in the Peninsula and is one of the last religious festivals in Singapore that brings crowds, colour, and what seems very much in evidence these days, a massive police presence and snap happy locals and tourists, to the streets.

More on the festival, including photographs taken at previous Thaipusam celebrations, can be found in the following posts:

Vel, Vel, Vadivel: Thaipusam in Singapore (2010)
Sights Sans Sounds of Thaipusam in Singapore (2011)
Thaipusam at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Templ (2012)
An Annual Walk of Faith (2013)
Faces of Thaipusam 2014 (2014)


Photographs from the 2015 Thaipusam celebrations at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple

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