Lost Singapore: The hundred steps to a thousand Buddhas

1 11 2017

Of the many places in Singapore we have lost over the years, none might have possessed the magical quality of the Hall of A Thousand Buddhas standing at the top of Mount Washington. From its isolated perch, even if it was merely 80 metres above sea level, it would have seemed that heaven was a lot closer to it than was earth. A sanctuary for prayer, and perhaps for contemplation, the ascent to it would – at least for the devoted – involved a climb of a hundred steps.

A view from afar with the two 19th century Guanyin temples also seen (photo posted by Tan Chee Wee on On A Little Street in Singapore).

In as magical a fashion as the hall might have been, photographs of the temple have quite recently come to the surface – in the same wonderful photograph sets posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij On a Little Street in Singapore. The same set includes those of the Anchor Brewery and its railway siding that made an appearance in my previous post.

The Hall of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

The prayer hall, also referred to as a temple, was erected by the World Buddhist Society in 1966 to commemorate the first anniversary of Singapore’s independence. An accompanying pagoda, standing close to the hall, was actually built before the hall and had been in existence since 1957 when it was built in commemoration of the then Malaya’s Merdeka. Besides the pair, two other temple buildings – built onto the slope below the hall – were also found by the long staircase. Both were dedicated to Kwan In – the goddess of mercy, with the upper temple intended for male worshippers having been of a 1871 vintage and the lower temple – for women – thought to have been built in 1884. The complex of structures adorned the summit of Mount Washington, also known as Telok Blangah Hill or Thousand Buddha Hill until the late 1980s. That was when the land on which it stood was acquired to allow an extension to Mount Faber Park, across Henderson Road (a 1972 addition), to be built; despite the appeals that were made against it. The World Buddhist Society’s headquarters, housed in the Alkaff Mansion downslope since 1970, was also acquired during the same exercise.

The Hall of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

The Pagoda of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

A close-up of the Pagoda of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

A postcard of the hall and the pagoda.

 

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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).