Going, going, gone … the tiger of Short and Selegie

29 05 2019

A building that has long marked the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road, the former “Tiger Balm Building”1, is no more. Topped once by a tiger as a mark of its association with the Haw Par Brothers famous cure-all ointment, the uniquely shaped building was demolished quite recently to allow a luxury car “vending machine” to take its place.

Going … going … gone … 2016, 2018, 2019.

Laid on an isosceles-trapezoid plan, the edifice came up in the 1930s as Eng Aun Tong’s “The Tiger Medical Hall”. Well photographed even in its early days, a rather iconic image captured of it by the legendary Carl Mydans in 1941 made its way into LIFE Magazine’s 21 July edition of that year in a feature on Singapore under the title “Singapore is a Modern City of Self-Made Millionaires”. Captioned “Singapore’s most picturesque millionaire sells his patent medicine under a clock tower”, the “picturesque millionaire” in question, Mr. Aw Boon Haw, was the man largely responsible for Tiger Balm’s and Haw Par Brothers’ success. The “picturesque” side of him was the tiger-striped car he drove, questionable (or “illicit” as alleged by LIFE) enterprises, and most certainly Tiger Balm Garden – a.k.a. Haw Par Villa.

A photograph in LIFE Magazine’s 21 Jul 1941 edition, captioned “Singapore’s most picturesque millionaire sells his patent medicine under a clock tower” [Carl Mydans, © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted]

Known also as “Tiger Balm Clock-Tower Building” in its early days, the tower – by the time the late 1960s had arrived – was made much less distinct through the addition of a fourth floor to what the building’s original three-levels. This came well after the building had already been repurposed in 1955 as Chung Khiaw Bank’s second Singapore branch. Chung Khiaw Bank, another of Aw Boon Haw’s ventures, was a “small man’s bank” that Boon Haw established to allow those in the lower income groups to gain access to financing.

Another one from the 1930s. From the Collectors Gallery, Mad on Collections (https://madoncollections.com/).

Occupants of the building’s two upper floor “flats” in its early days as the Tiger Medical Hall, included Narayanswamy & Sons – the sole distributor of Mysore Sandal(wood) Soap, and, the Butterfly Permanent Wave (salon). The only plans I have been able to locate thus far are for the addition of cubicles on the building’s second floor in 1937, drawn up and submitted by a Chan Yee Lim2 on behalf of Haw Par Brothers’ Ltd.  Once of Booty and Edwards and later of J. B. Westerhout, Chan – who came over who came over from Hong Kong in 1888 and qualified as an architect in 1915 – was already on his own by the time. His work included Catholic High School at 222 Queen Street, and the Carmelite Convent at Bukit Teresa. While it may be possible that Chan had also been the building’s architect, the plans do not conclusively say that he was.

The building in 2010.

The building in 2014.

On the subject of plans, it seems interesting that a “Tiger Theatre” was to have been built on the site adjacent to the Tiger Balm Building around the same period, separated by a backlane. Designed by Frank W. Brewer for Peter Chong, the idea for the 856-seat cinema was rejected by the Municipal Commissioners on grounds that there was no provision for parking. Despite its name, the cinema had no apparent association to Tiger Balm.

The building seen in a late 1945 Imperial War Museums photograph of a victory procession of Indian Muslims following the end of the war © IWM (SE 5096).

The tiger that topped the building – a familiar sight through much of my childhood – disappeared some time in the late 1970s when United Overseas Bank (UOB) raised a symbol of their own.  UOB had by that time, acquired a majority interest in the bank. Chung Khiaw Bank would however retained its name through much of the period, when became a fully owned subsidiary in 1988, and until it was fully absorbed by UOB in 1999.

The building topped by the UOB symbol in 1980 (NAS).

Among the businesses that had been housed in the building after the branch closed, were the offices and a small food court of Banquet Holdings Pte. Ltd. (the operator of halal food courts that has since gone under). A string of food and beverage outlets made brief appearances in more recent time. These included the Tea Culture Academy and Rayz Bistro. The building had in fact been threatened with demolition as far back as 2009. A 12 storey entertainment hub, named “10 Square”, was then proposed. Autobahn Motors, who had been behind this earlier proposal, now aims to put up the 20-deck “vending maching” – also named Ten Square. This looks to be along the lines of the one Autobahn already operates in Jalan Kilang with the exception of its shape and capacity. This, based on information on the site, should be completed by early next year.


Notes:
1
See also : When did the tiger at the corner of Selegie Road and Short Street go missing?

2 What may also be interesting about Chan Yee Lim, a prominent member of the congregation of the Church of Sacred Heart in Tank Road was that one of his eight children, Monsignor Francis Chan, was the Roman Catholic Diocese of Penang’s first Bishop from 1955 until his death in 1967. Monsignor Chan was succeeded as Bishop of Penang by Monsignor Gregory Yong, who we know as the Archbishop of Singapore from 1977 to 2000.


 

 





My stroll through the streets that made up the Mahallah: Selegie Road

17 03 2010

Wandering around the Selegie Road area today, there is very little of the old that is left to remind us of the Selegie Road that existed in the when I was growing up in the 1960s, and certainly even less of a time when you might have thought you were in a different world altogether. That was a time we have long left behind as Singaporeans, a past that we have perhaps chosen to forget.

Signs of the times: Selegie Road at the turn of the 21st Century ... a very different world from when it was a bustling street within the Mahallah.

The area today boasts of spanking new edifices, the School of the Arts for one and Wilkie Edge being another, representative perhaps of the Singapore we have become, somewhat cold and grey, seemingly perfect and lacking in identity, much like Huxley’s Brave New World. Interspersed with the new kids on the block are several older structures built in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Peace Centre, Selegie House and the former Selegie School, as well as some pre-war buildings that have hitherto managed to escape the wrecker’s ball.

Spanking new buildings now stand in what was once the Mahallah.

It is the pre-war buildings that provide a glimpse into the forgotten past, when it was part of an area referred to by its inhabitants as the Mahallah, or “place” in Arabic. Of these, two, the David Elias building at the junctions of Selegie Road, Middle Road and Short Street, and the Ellison building which is located at the end of Selegie Road provide the clues as to whom the inhabitants of the Mahallah were, not Arabs as one might have assumed, but members of the Diaspora, the symbol of which, the Star of David, is displayed prominently on the façades. It was a comment on my post on Selegie Road, from a reader Mamadondi, who lived in the vicinity from 1958 to 1978, who suggested a link between the two buildings that prompted me to take a stroll through the area in an attempt to acquaint myself with this past.

Selegie Road today is a mix of modern buildings and pre-war buildings such as the former Tiger Balm building and the David Elias building.

The former Tiger Balm Building at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road - a surviving pre-war building on Selegie Road without a Jewish past.

The Mahallah was the “place” where the many working class Baghdadi Jews who had settled in Singapore around the turn of the twentieth century, called home, a Jewish Quarter so to speak. They went about the daily business, just as they might have done on the streets of old Baghdad or Calcutta where many had originated from, living amongst the Indian, Eurasian and Chinese families in the area. The area included Selegie Road, Short Street, Wilkie Road, Sophia Road, Prinsep Street and Middle Road. That Arabic was a common language and that the two buildings mentioned both display the Star of David on their façades, provides an appreciation for who the area’s inhabitants were. It was common to see Jews dressed in Iraqi attire, with men topped with a fez, as the new immigrants sought to recreate a familiarity of where they had arrived from, within the surroundings of their new world. The large Jewish families that lived in the area were relatively poor, many with ten or more children, and most were cramped in the many small two storey houses that were common in the area. Many were small traders, rabbis and bakers who came to seek a better life or to serve the community, some following their more successful brethren, for the promise of success. Living in the Mahallah, many struggled to make ends meet. However, it was from the adversity of living in these conditions that many in the community succeeded in life, with many prominent and successful Singaporeans emerging out of the Mahallah, among them Jacob Ballas and Harry Elias.

The David Elias Building with Stars of David displayed prominently provides a link to the area

On this point, it must be said that wider community of Baghdadi Jews had in fact seen tremendous success, with many living in stately mansions away from the Mahallah, or close by on Mount Sophia, among them the Elias family and Mannaseh Meyer. The community also provided Singapore, with its first Chief Minister, David Marshall – the son of an Baghdadi immigrant, Saul Marshall. The Elias family had through their patriarch, Aaron, who passed away in 1902, amassed a huge fortune from the opium trade. At the point of Aaron’s untimely death, the mantle was taken up by the eldest son, Joseph Aaron Elias. The family was known for its stately mansion by the sea on the East Coast, as well as a holiday villa in Tampines which provided Elias Road in Pasir Ris with its name. Several buildings including Amber Mansions that stood on Orchard Road where the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station is today is attributed to Joseph. The David Elias building was built by David J. Elias, who was the second cousin of Joseph Aaron Elias, and brother-in-law, having married Joseph’s sister Miriam, and was a successful import and export merchant in his own right. The building which was designed by the prominent colonial architectural firm, Swan and MacLaren, and built in 1928, contained many offices and shops and the offices of David’s company, D. J. Elias and Company.

Floor tiles on the five-foot way of the David Elias building.

The Ellison Building as seen from the junction of Rochor Canal and Selegie Roads.

At the end of Selegie Road at its junction with Bukit Timah Road, stands the Ellison building which I mentioned in a previous post. The origins of the buildings are rather vague, having been described in an infopedia article as being built for a Jewish lady named Ellison. It could very well have been for a Flora Ellison, having been put up in 1924 by Issac Ellison, a Romanian Jew who owned an Iky’s Bar near Raffles Place which was apparently quite a popular nightspot. Issac was married to Flora who was a Baghdadi Jewess who had come from Rangoon.

Issac (Ike) and Flora Ellison (Source: Joan Bieder's "The Jews of Singapore").

I guess it is hard to imagine how the area once was – an aerial view of Eu Villa on Mount Sophia, which incidentally was also designed by Swan and MacLaren, available on the National Archives PICAS site provides an impression of how it would have looked like in the pre-war years, without recreating the atmosphere that existed. It was good to have Joan Bieder’s excellent book, “The Jews of Singapore”, for which much of the factual information provided here is based on, to accompany my stroll through the area, as a guide. Whatever it was … the Mahallah has ceased to exist, living only the the memory of those who lived there … replaced by the modern structures which struggle to recreate the vibrancy that the inhabitants of the Mahallah once brought to the area.

Aerial view of Eu Villa on Mount Sophia from the National Archives PICAS website providing a good idea of how the area looked like before the war in 1940.





When did the tiger at the corner of Selegie Road and Short Street go missing?

15 03 2010

While looking at a photograph I had taken of that distinctive building which stands at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road, a building that has been a feature on Selegie Road for as long as I can remember, it came to me that I once used to see a tiger at the top of the building. The 4 storey building which was, when I was growing up, used by the Chung Khiaw Bank and later after its merger with United Overseas Bank (UOB), by the UOB Group, had more recently housed the offices and a food court of Banquet Holdings Pte Ltd, operators of the Banquet chain of halal food courts. The building, I sadly learnt, would soon be making way for a 12 storey entertainment hub named 10 square after its 100 Selegie Road address which would feature a 14 metre wide LED screen on its façade.

The very distinctive building at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road.

The tiger I used to see was not a live one of course … it was one that we are well acquainted with in Singapore – the tiger that we see on the labels of Tiger Balm. This does provide a clue to the history of the building, which my father had referred to as the Tiger Balm Building. It had housed a Eng Aun Tong Medical Hall, as is evidenced by a 1941 photograph seen at http://kaufmann-mercantile.com/tiger-balm/. The photograph also shows that an additional floor had been added on at some point in time.

The Tiger Balm Building, 1941 (Source: http://kaufmann-mercantile.com/tiger-balm).

It would not be hard to explain how the building came to be used by Chung Khiaw Bank – the bank had been established in 1950 by Aw Boon Haw, the man who together with his brother Aw Boon Par, gave us Tiger Balm, Haw Par Corporation and the Haw Par Villa. When, the use of the building changed, I was not able to establish, as with when the tiger disappeared. What I do know is that the tiger could still be seen in a 1975 photograph of Selegie Road. I also remember looking out for it on the bus ride home when I was receiving my lower secondary education between 1977 and 1978. By 1990, as seen in another photograph in Ray Tyers book, the tiger had already gone missing, a fate that now awaits its former home.

The tiger still seen above the former Tiger Balm Building in a photograph of Selegie Road taken in 1975 (Source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).