Not all Black and White at Mount Pleasant

1 11 2015

In a Singapore now overrun by the clutter of the modernised world, there is nothing that better celebrates the Singapore we have long abandoned better than the “Black and White” houses we still see scattered across the island. Characterised by their whitewashed and black trimmed exteriors and set in lush green surroundings, the houses – built in the early decades of the twentieth century to house the colony’s administrators, carry themselves with a poise and elegance that is sadly lacking in the architecture of the modern world.

The 'black and white' house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The ‘black and white’ house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The rear of the house - with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

The rear of the house – with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

I am always grateful for the opportunity to have a look into one of these houses, a good number of which are today leased out for quite a tidy sum by the Singapore government. One that I recently got to see – thanks to arrangements made by a friend and fellow blogger James Tann and with the kind permission of the house’s occupant, was at 159 Mount Pleasant Road. Laid out in a style typical of the early “Black and White” house – of single room depth and with a carriage porch arranged under a projecting second storey verandah, the house at #159 is one of a cluster of similar houses built in the 1920s along the north facing slope of Mount Pleasant to serve as residences for the fast developing municipality’s Municipal Councillors.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

Located close to the top of Mount Pleasant, one of the high points in the series of undulations that extend to the burial grounds to its northwest at the area of Bukit Brown, there is much to admire about the house and its expansive grounds. I was to learn from James that what was most interesting about the house was however neither its architecture nor the beauty of its setting but a secret it held for some seventy years.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway - again typical of an daly 'Black and White' house design.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway – again typical of an early ‘Black and White’ house design.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

James, who was photographing the house for a book on the Adam Park Project, shared what had been learnt about #159 and about some of the houses in the vicinity from piecing together evidence found in history books, maps and also what had quite recently been uncovered on the grounds. The project, which is led by battlefield archeologist Jon Cooper, seeks to establish what did go on in and around Adam Park in the dark days of the first half of February 1942 from archaeological evidence.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

Jon Cooper paints a picture of the events of the last days leading up to what does seem to have taken place on the morning of 15th February 1942, the day of the surrender, in a video that relates to a dig carried out at #159 early this year. Meeting with stiff resistance from the Cambridgeshire regiment who held the ground for three days at Adam Park, the Japanese forces move slightly to the north. On the evening of 14th of February, the Japanese break through positions held by 4th Battalion of the Royal Suffolks at the Singapore Island Country Club and at Bukit Brown. The Suffolks retreat, falling back across a valley (which would be the low ground at Jalan Mashhor / Gymkhana Avenue), to positions on Mount Pleasant. Here, a mixed of units including the 125th Anti Tank Regiment, the Royal Engineers and elements of the 9th Northumberland Fusiliers, have the area fortified for a Japanese attack, with the “Black and White” houses there serving as defensive positions.

Cooper tells us also of two well documented attacks on Mount Pleasant that follow. One comes from an account recorded by Henry Frei, who once taught at the NUS, based on interviews with Japanese veterans. This account makes mention of an attack on “Hospital Hill” which wipes out a whole company of Japanese troops.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

Another account Cooper refers to speaks of attempts on the morning of 15th February to retake a house that had been infiltrated by the Japanese. The house, on the north side of Mount Pleasant Road, is described as as hard to take due to its elevation below the road. Following two failed attempts to retake it, the house is hit with 12 anti-tank shells fired from a gun positioned at the junction of Mount Pleasant Road and Thomson Road. The house catches fire, is cleared of Japanese troops, and eventually burns down. Evidence provided by 1948 aerial photographs point to the house being one with a new roof at #160. This lies right across Mount Pleasant Road from #159 and seems also to be confirmed by a Singapore Free Press article of 25 June 1948 reporting the discovery of the remains of 8 soldiers on the grounds of a “bombed house” at 160 Mount Pleasant Road.

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

The far end of #159’s garden, was also where one set of remains was located, that of a British officer. Although the remains were subsequently moved to Kranji, one of the aims of the dig at #159 was to find evidence of the that may have possibly been left behind.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

While no evidence of that was found, the main focus of the dig, which took place at the near end of the huge garden, did meet with success. With some of what had lay buried in this area having been exposed following the removal of a tree and the gradual washing away of the topsoil by rainwater, the dig there managed to uncover thousands of pieces of ammunition. The find, which includes both spent cases and a cache of unused ones that had deliberately been buried, confirms that there had been fighting in the garden of #159, which would have been used as a staging point for the attack on #160. The large quantity of unused ammunition of British origin, provided evidence of the final positions of British troops as they made their preparations prior to surrender.

Mount Pleasant Road served as the final battle line before the capitulation.

Mount Pleasant Road, seen here running between #159 and #160, served as a final battle line before the capitulation.

There is probably a lot more that currently lies buried on the grounds of #159 and the other “Black and White” houses in the vicinity. It may be that the grounds of these houses may never reveal their secrets. Based on what’s seen in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan, it does seem that the area will be the subject of future redevelopment, perhaps as part of the intended Bukit Brown estate on the evidence of the two MRT stations in the vicinity. It would be a shame if and when this happens as not only will we lose a green part of Singapore with its “Black and White” reminders of a forgotten age, we will lose a link to a chapter in our history that must never be forgotten.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.


More photographs of 159 Mount Pleasant Road

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New Year’s Eve with a Concubine: a stroll around the streets of Old Ipoh

3 01 2011

One of the wonderful things about wandering around old towns in Malaysia is their ability to delight you with a few surprises from time to time. One such town (or city as it is now) is Ipoh, which I have passed through many times over the years without paying much attention to, which I had decided to spend a night at recently, motivated primarily by the desire to pay a visit to the grand old Railway Station building given to the city by one of the architects that Kuala Lumpur owes its rich architectural heritage to, with the bonus of the promise of the sumptuous treats that awaits the visitor to the city.

Motivated by the desire to have a look at the magnificent piece of railway architecture designed by A. B. Hubback, I decided to spend a bit more time in Ipoh than I normally would have thought of spending.

Ipoh had always been a town that I had not paid much attention to, often serving as a mere stopover on journeys to the north and the west of the town. It is a town that I have always associated with the tin mines that brought the town much of its status and wealth in the days gone by, one characterised by the many grand old buildings in the old town and the large bungalows along the approach into town that greet the visitor. My first ever visits there had been on an ambitious road trip my father took the family on in the early 1970s, when we had stopped first to pay a visit to the parents of his Brother-in-law who lived in Canning Garden on the way from Cameron Highlands to Penang, which I remember very little of except for sweltering in the mid day heat. We did also stop on the return trip – an unscheduled stop forced upon us by the temperature that I was running, to consult with a doctor and get some rest to recover before setting off for Kuala Lumpur.

Ipoh is named after the Ipoh, Epu or Upas Tree which was apparently abundant in and around Ipoh. This Ipoh Tree stands in the Town Square just in front of the Railway Station.

There were two other visits that I had made during my youth, both en route to Pulau Pangkor. One was notable more for the return coach journey on the Mara Express on which left passengers in a state that wasn’t far from a homonym of Mara in Malay. The other was when we had actually spent a few days – once again at Canning Garden where we stayed with the parents of a colleague of my mothers. That trip I remember most for being bored, mah-jong being the source of adult entertainment, thus leaving my sister and myself, the only juveniles stuck within the confines of the four walls and looking forward to the forays made into town for meals for which I remember the crunchy bean sprouts most and perhaps the sight of the old Cold Storage Supermarket which somehow caught my attention. It wasn’t some 25 years after that, at the beginning of 2008 when I had a short stint in Penang, that I visited Ipoh again, once again for a short stopover driven by curiosity of a place I had only vague memories of. On that and a subsequent stopover I made at the end of 2009, there wasn’t really much to change my impression of the town, which is in fact the administrative and commercial capital of the state of Perak, based on its reputation as being not much more than a sleepy hollow.

Ipoh, set against the backdrop of limestone hills has a reputation of being a sleepy hollow.

This time around, equipped with a little more time than I had given myself on my other recent visits, I was able to see a part of Ipoh that had previously escaped me. I was indeed surprised by its architectural heritage around a part of Ipoh that I had not previously known – seeing only in photographs the magnificent Railway Station and the beautiful building that is home to the sister institution to my own alma mater, St. Michael’s Institution.

Ipoh has some architectural masterpieces including St. Michael's Institution which was built over a period of 30 years from 1922, which is a sister institution to my alma mater in Singapore, St. Joseph's Institution.

After a early morning exploration of the beautiful Railway Station of which I would devote another post to, I was able to take a stroll around another of Arthur Benison Hubback’s masterpieces – the Town Hall, which has sadly fallen into a state of disrepair – although signs of restoration work around the rear of the building which was once the Post Office were evident. The Town Hall was built by the Public Works Department (as were the Government Buildings of that time) as part of an effort to provide Ipoh with public buildings that were “worthy of the town” in the early part of the 20th Century, the same effort which provided the Railway Station and the Town Square that separates the two magnificent edifices which were meant to provide, as the town planners had put, “a fine entry into the town“. Construction on the Town Hall and Post Office commenced in 1914 and after a delay due to the late arrival of materials from England, the building was completed in 1916. The Post Office moved in early 1917.

Ipoh Town Hall, which also housed the Post Office at the back of the building, was another building designed by A. B. Hubback.

A view of one of the wings of the Neo Classical styled Town Hall.

Inside the Town Hall.

Some of the other notable buildings in the vicinity that I was able to see on my stroll around the area just behind the Town Hall, bounded by Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road), Jalan Dewan (Post Office Road), Jalan Sultan Yussuf (Belfield Road), and the Padang are the High Court, built in Neo-Classical style and completed in 1928; the Straits Trading Building (now occupied by OCBC) built in 1907 in the Italian Renaissance style; the Chartered Bank Building built in 1924; the Art Deco styled Mercantile Bank (1931); the Perak Hydro Building (1930s) which housed the Perak River Hydro-Electric Power Company which supplied power to the tin mines around Ipoh; the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931), built in the Neo Renaissance style and was for a long time the tallest building in Ipoh until the post-independence era; and the building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant from 1923 – reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Malaysia which was started by a Hainanese immigrant and catered exclusively to European Miners and Plantation Owners. Along Jalan Tun Sambanthan (Hale Street) by the Padang, there is also a row of terrace town houses worth a look at which once was occupied by the practices and residences of legal professionals.

The High Court building is another notable building in Ipoh, just across from the Town Hall.

Another view of the High Court.

The Straits Trading Building (1907).

The Chartered Bank Building (1924).

The Mercantile Bank Building (1931).

The Perak Hydro Building (1930s).

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931) which for a long time was the highest building in Ipoh.

The building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant, reputedly the oldest restaurant in Malaysia.

Across Jalan Tun Sambanthan from the Padang, are a row of pre-war town houses which housed the offices and residences of legal professionals.

So what does all this have to do with the concubine in the title of this post you may ask? Well, the stroll did certainly help in working up an appetite and in deciding to head to nearby Leech Street or what is now Jalan Bandar Timah where I was given to understand had some of the best “Sar Hor Fun” – flat rice noodles (commonly referred to as Kway Teow in our part of the world) of which Ipoh has reputedly the best (in terms of it being silky smooth), served with shredded steamed chicken and prawns in a clear chicken broth, in town, I stumbled upon another of the delightful surprises Ipoh held in store for me: Panglima Lane. Panglima Lane or Lorong Panglima is a narrow alleyway lined with two rows of two-storey pre-war houses that date back to the turn of the 20th Century. The lane had apparently been a hotbed of vice activity, home to gambling, prostitution and opium dens, which later became a residential area from which it got its name “Second Concubine Lane” being one of three streets where the Chinese wealthy had housed their concubines. Today, what greets the visitor are the crumbling and closely spaced units, some still occupied, and others, structurally unsound, lying abandoned. Signs of life are still very much in evidence around the occupied units – a well known restaurant occupies one of the units close to the main road beyond which the sight of laundry poles overhead, potted plants, opened doors and bicycles and tricycles greet the eye, along with evidence of the units that are slowly but surely falling apart. There are apparently plans to conserve and redevelop the houses along the lane, which I guess is something to look forward to, and something that has to be done before it all crumbles away.

A delightful find off Jalan Bandar Timah (Leech Street) is Lorong Panglima, a narrow street which is also known as "Concubine Lane".

Two rows of houses dating from the turn of the 20th Century line both sides of Concubine Lane, some showing signs of age and neglect. The lane was once a hotbed of vice activity and later became a residential area where rich Chinese men kept mistresses or concubines.

Another view of Concubine Lane. Some units still serve as residences, while some have been abandoned and left to crumble.

A tricycle outside a house in Concubine Lane.

More signs of life.

Windows on Concubine Lane.

A peek into one of the abandoned units on Concubine Lane.

As an added treat, I had my bowl of “Sar Hor Fun” in a coffee shop on the ground floor of a building on Leech Street that was built in the 1920s, as a hostel for performers at a Chinese Opera theatre that was just next door to it (since demolished). It was really a toss-up between the “Sar Hor Fun” stall next door at No. 73 which seemed more popular, and the one at No. 75 (Kong Heng Coffee Shop) where the so-called Dramatists’ Hostel was housed. I went for the one at No. 75 perhaps for the history of the building and wasn’t disappointed. The bowl of silky smooth noodles in the tasty chicken broth (which didn’t at all feel like it had been flavoured with MSG) was one of the best I have tasted. What struck me sitting in the coffee shop was that besides the bowl of noodles, people were also eating satay – which came from a well-known stall at neighbouring No. 73 – satay where I come from is usually only eaten only in the evenings. With the bowl of noodles finished, there was only one thing left to do … that was to sip on the steaming hot cup of Ipoh White Coffee, before heading back to the hotel for a rest.

The former "Dramatists' Hostel" along Leech Street once was home to performers of the Chinese Opera Theatre that stood next door (since demolished).

The ground floor of the former "Dramatists' Hostel" now houses the Kedai Kopi Kong Heng, at which I had a piping hot bowl of the well known Ipoh Sar Hor Fun.

A view from the window of the coffee shop.

The very satisfying bowl of "Sar Hor Fun" that I had.

The Sar Hor Fun stall at Kong Heng.





Architectural masterpieces of KL: The Railway Administration Building

28 12 2010

These days most would associate Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, affectionately referred to as KL, with some of the modern landmarks that have risen in a city that itself rose out of the confluence of the muddy Gombak and the Klang Rivers. KL is a city that I have been very fond of, visiting it on an annual basis since the 1970s when it took six hours on the old trunk road in the back of my father’s car. It is a city that I have long associated with food and shopping, usually ending up staying in budget accommodation off the main shopping belt of Bukit Bintang which also gave access to the wonderful street food in the Jalan Alor and Tong Shin Terrace areas.

Kuala Lumpur features some magnificent architectural masterpieces from the turn of the 20th Century including the Railway Administration Building which was completed in 1917, which is sadly now overshadowed by the new icons such as the Petronas Twin Towers.

It wasn’t until perhaps the 1990s that I started to notice some of the wonderful architectural masterpieces from the turn of the 20th Century, having had the independence to wander around some of its streets, such as the beautiful Sultan Abdul Samad building and Masjid Jamek, and using the trains as a means to travel to KL, who could not but notice the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and the magnificent Railway Administration Building just across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin from the station.

One architectural masterpeice, the KL Railway Station, seen through the arches of another, the Railway Administration Building (now the KTMB HQ) across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin. Both buildings feature Morrish influences and were designed by A.B. Hubback.

With much of the focus on the new icons of KL, less attention is now placed on these mainly Moorish architecture inspired buildings – the work of the Public Works Department, the PWD (which was incidentally led by the very able Mr Charles Edwin Spooner at the end of 19th Century, before he was appointed the General Manager of the FMS Railways in 1901 – thus having a hand in the Railway Buildings as well). The Masjid Jamek, as well as the two Railway Buildings built in the early part of the 20th Century were designed by an architect with the PWD, a Arthur Benison Hubback, who incidentally rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the British Army during the First World War, and had the good fortune of working under the architect of Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Arthur Charles Alfred Norman. Besides being responsible for some of the iconic architecture of KL Hubback also was responsible for works such as the Ipoh Railway Station and work in the sister colony of Hong Kong, the most notable work being the terminal station of the Kowloon to Canton Railway at Tsim Sha Tsui (which sadly was demolished in 1977, leaving only the Clock Tower, which now serves as a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui, behind).

The former Kowloon Railway seen during construction in 1914. It was demolished in 1977 with only the Clock Tower, now a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui, remaining. The station was designed by an architect with the Selangor PWD, A.B. Hubback who was responsible for some of the iconic buildings of Kuala Lumpur (source Wikipedia).

Tsim Sha Tsui's historic clock tower (1915) ... the last remnant of the Kowloon Railway Station.

The Railway Administration Building, now the Headquarters of KTM Berhad (KTMB), has been one that I had longed to visit for a long time, but somehow never got to in all those years passing through the Railway Station. It was one that I would always hold in awe, with its age browned façade dominated by moorish styled arches and domes. Based on the information plaque at the entrance to the compound, the building is a “fine example of Moorish architecture reflecting the Ottoman and Moghul glory of the 13th and 14th Centuries blended with Gothic and ancient Greek designs of the 14th Century. The ground floor is adorned with 97 large frontal Gothic arches and 4 smaller arches. The high and wide verandahs skirting the building create a cooling effect and are suitable for the constant high climatic temperatures in Malaysia. The first floor has 94 large arched windows of Gothic design and 4 circular arches of smaller size. The second floor has 171 Gothic arches and 4 large and 12 smaller circular arches. Five domes sit majestically on top of the building, each surrounded at four corners entwined columns. They are of orthodox Greek design typical in the 14th century. This historical building suffered serious damage twice in its lifetime, firstly during the Second World War when its North wing was bombed and secondly when the same wing on the second floor was gutted by fire in 14 November 1968.

The moorish inspired age-browned façade and the main central dome of the Railway Administration Building in KL.

Another view of the age-browned façade of the Railway Administration Building through one of the arches.

Stepping into the building for the very first time, I could not but be amazed by the sheer splendour of its Moorish inspired design. As the information plaque rightly describes the verandas, they are indeed cool and airy, and dominated by a wonderful row of Gothic styled arches that brings to mind those of the interiors of some of the magnificent Gothic cathedrals and churches of Europe and perhaps the Mosque of the Caliphs in Cordoba and to an extent CHIJMES in Singapore. Unfortunately, the upper floors of the building are out of bounds, being where the offices of KTMB are located and my exploration of the building was confined to the ground floor. One of the features that can be appreciated from the ground floor at the main entrance lobby of the building is the beautiful central staircase which spirals below the central dome of the building, featuring some wonderful wrought iron work on its banisters for which a visit to the building is certainly worthy of. If you are ever in KL, do take the time to visit this magnificent building, one that is often passed over for some of the more modern icons of a city that is in fact blessed with some wonderful architectural masterpieces, particularly those given by those highly talented colonial architects who played a big part in the infrastructure development not just of KL but in some of the other British colonies at the turn of the 20th century.

The central staircase below the central dome provides access to the upper floors of the building (which is out of bounds).

The central staircase.

A photograph in the hallway showing the building and the railway station.

The building also features some beautiful ironwork.

A window seen through one of the frontal arches.

A view across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin through one of the arches.

Magnificent gothic arches from the exterior corridors of the building.

A view of the Gothic arched corridor at the back of the building.

A broken part of the buildings cornice lying at the side of the building.

A view of the staircase at the wing of the building.

A semi-circular flight of steps at the wing of the building.

An old signal post on display at the front of the building.

The frontal arches.

In the gardens in front of the building.