“Lenin’s Tomb” at Raffles Place

17 01 2020

Constructed in an effort to beautify the city, the “underground” car park topped with a roof garden that came to define the Raffles Place of post-independent Singapore, came in for some criticism as it was nearing completion. Likened to Lenin’s Mausoleum, its critics even went so far as to suggest that it be used for the repose of Singapore’s distinguished citizens. Despite the early reservations, Raffles Place Garden – as it was christened, was a quite a joy to behold. With its floral clock, fountain and a backdrop provided by Raffles Place’s characterful buildings, the garden became what could be thought of as the 1960s equivalent of an instagram-worthy spot.

Christmas 1966 on the roof garden at Raffles Place, with Robinson’s behind.

That Raffles Place was certainly a place I connected with.  My visits there usually coincided with the preparations for the year-end season of giving, which invariably led to Robinsons Department Store’s quite memorable toy department. Large and well stocked, the department was every child’s dream. I looked forward to visiting each year, even if that meant having to catch sight of Father Christmas, whom I was terrified of. Out of Robinson’s famous Christmas lucky dip, I once pulled out an orange coloured battery-operated submarine. It was a prized toy, even if I had to contend with using it once every three months during our seaside holidays at Mata Ikan – in the holiday bungalow’s bathtub!

The promise of good food was another thing to look forward to when visiting Raffles Place. Makan time would on a special occasion, lead me to the Honeyland Milk Bar at Battery Road, which was just around the square’s northeast corner. There was always a sense of anticipation that I got as the parting of the café’s heavy doors delivered a cold rush of Worcestershire sauce scented air. The café’s chicken pies were to die for. I enjoyed the pies with a dash of tomato ketchup – which I never could quite manage to cajole out from the sauce bottle without some help.

Raffles Place’s little “corners”, which included Change Alley, added much to area’s unique charm. “Chin Charlie” to me and many non-English speakers like my maternal grandmother, it was a fascinating place to wander through and one of the places that made the Singapore of the 1960s, Singapore. The famous alley, which featured in films and in a BBC newsreel,  seemed to be always be full of life and for a while, laughter – emanating from numerous laughing bags being set off in the alley by its many toy vendors as a form of advertisement. Popular at the end of the 1960s, the toys took the form of tiny drawstring bags that contained sound boxes.

The Raffles Place end of Change Alley, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

Little did I know it as a young child, but the laughter, along with the Raffles Place that I knew and loved would soon to see lasting change. A tragic fire in November 1972, which resulted in the loss of nine lives, also saw to Robinsons losing its iconic Raffles Chambers home it had occupied since 1941. The subsequent move – of Robinson’s to Specialists Centre in Orchard Road – also severed the store’s connection with the square, which could be traced back to 1858.

Raffles Chambers – before Robinson’s moved in.

By the time of the fire, the area had in fact already been in the cusp of change. At the glorious waterfront – Raffles Place “backyard”, the grand old turret-topped 1923 built Ocean Building had come down in 1970 to make way for a towering third. The 1923 Ocean – the second to stand on the site – was the forerunner of a building frenzy that would shape Singapore’s bund at Collyer Quay, which by the 1930s possessed a quality that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment. The second Ocean’s demise set a reversal of the process in motion. Two more of the waterfront’s grand 1920s edifices erected a year after the Ocean, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and Maritime (ex-Union Insurance) Building, would also make way for the new.

John Little’s Building early in 1946 – when it was used temporarily as the Shackle Club [source: Lizzie Ellis on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)].

On the square, one of its famous landmarks – John Little’s Building – was sold in 1973. This would lead to Raffles Tower (now Singapore Land Tower) being put up in its place. Incidentally, Raffles Tower when it was still under construction,  was the scene of a dramatic aerial helicopter rescue – the first in Singapore’s history. The rescue on 21 October 1980 came at a time when 19 out of tower’s intended 48 floors were completed. A fire broke out on the 18th floor, which left a crane operator stranded on a tower crane perched on the top of the uncompleted building some 60 metres above ground. The daring rescue effort saw the operator plucked from the crane’s boom to safety by the crew of a RSAF Bell 212 helicopter .

Singapore’s first helicopter aerial rescue was over Raffles Place on 21 October 1980.

Raffles Place would also lose its car park and roof garden not so long after this incident. A well-loved feature by that time, the garden’s lifespan fell short of the “many, many decades” that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had predicted it would last when he opened it in November 1965. The construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system just two decades later, meant that the structure and its garden, went the way of Raffles Place’s older icons in mid-1984.

Raffles Place – still with its garden – in the late 1970s. The former Mercantile Bank can be seen at the end of the square.

The building of the MRT also took out the other landmarks that could be identified with old Raffles Place. The former Mercantile Bank (built 1929) was one. The building, which marked the square’s southern end, had been purchased by Chartered Bank to house its Singapore headquarters while its 6 Battery Road HQ at the square’s opposite end, was being rebuilt. Chartered Bank’s new premises at 6 Battery Road, which was put up at the start of the 1980s incorporated a provision for the MRT to be built at a time when the question of whether the MRT should be built was still being deliberated.

Over a CBD in transition at the end of the 1970s. Renewal, redevelopment and reclamation would change the face of a part of Singapore that at the point of independence, had a certain old world charm (photo source: Panoramio).

Raffles Place today, wears a look of modernity reflective of Singapore’s impressive progress since the car park and its roof garden was unveiled. Cold as it may have become enclosed by the wall of towering symbols of success, Lenin’s tomb it is not nor a place of repose for the distinguished – other than the distinguished past. There are the reminders of the square that was replaced if one looks hard enough – found in the names that are retained and in some of the new structures that have come to define the new Raffles Place.


 

Raffles Place over the years

 

 

Raffles Place stands on the site of a hill that was levelled in 1822 to provide filler for the reclamation in way of the south bank of the Singapore River that provided the grounds for Boat Quay.

 

Raffles Place in the late 1800s. The garden seen in this G. R. Lambert print was one of Commercial Square’s early features, which was laid out, planted with trees and enclosed by a low wall and a wooden fence in the mid-1830s. The marble drinking water fountain seen in the photograph was the one presented by John Gemmill in 1864. The donation involved more than just the fountain as it required the laying of pipes from Mr Gemmill’s property at Mount Erskine to Raffles Place. The fountain originally had metal cups chained to it. The fountain, which now stands outside the National Museum of Singapore, found its way to Empress Place, before being moved to the museum in the 1970s.

 

Gemmill’s fountain – at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

Another G R Lambert print from the late 1800s. Originally Commercial Square, it was named Raffles Place by the Municipal Commission in 1858.

 

By the 1900s Raffles Place was well developed into a commercial and banking centre. This postcard view of Raffles Place in the 1930s shows several banking institutions established around in the square such as (from left to right): Mercantile Bank of India, Banque de l’Indochine (French Bank) and Yokohama Specie Bank (YS Bank in Meyer Chambers).

 

Preparations for war, 1941. A machine gun pillbox seen in front of a John Little’s Building fitted with brick barricades.

 

Air raid wardens are dousing an incendiary bomb in Raffles Place in 1941 as part of a regular weekly mass demonstration to make Singaporean’s bomb conscious and informed (source: Library of Congress – no known copyright restrictions).

A bomb damaged Raffles Place following the first Japanese air raid on Singapore on 8 Dec 1941.

 

Raffles Place in the 1950s, by which time stores such as John Little – established in the 1840s and Robinson’s, founded in the 1850s, were already very well established and were household names.

 

Plans for a garden at Raffles Place were first announced in Nov 1963 during a State Government policy address made by Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak to the Legislative Assembly – the first with Singapore a State in Malaysia and the last ever. Work commenced on what was to be a 150 car capacity underground car park topped by a roof garden in July 1964. By the time LKY opened the carpark and roof garden in Nov 1965, Singapore was an independent country. LKY expressed his disappointment that the car park had to be elevated a metre above the ground for ventilation and access and observed that some had likened one end of the structure to Lenin’s tomb. He also noted that there were also suggestions that “we might perhaps repose the precious remains of some of our more distinguished citizens in one end of this square”.

 

Mr David Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966, which made its rounds around the internet in 2012. The photograph shows the roof garden and looks towards the northern end of the square with the Chartered Bank Chambers on Battery Road at the far end (source: David Ayres on Flickr).

 

Another northward view – this one in 1969 courtesy of Mr Kim Hocker (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The five-foot-way along John Little’s Building in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Trishaw riders outside Oriental Emporium at Raffles Place in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

A view of the car park from street level with a staircase to the roof garden (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The Malacca Street end of the car park and its location today.

A view towards the north end with MRT construction work, 1987 (National Archives of Singapore).

 

A northward view today. The John Little’s Building is replicated on the main entrances to the MRT.

 

A southward view of Raffles Place today.

 

The Singapore Land tower (R) – where the rescue of the crane operator took place in 1980.

 

One Raffles Place – which occupies the site of Robinson’s and Meyer Chambers.


 





Parting Glances: Losing a Pearl

11 10 2019

Pearls Centre 1977A look back at Pearls Centre, which was demolished back in 2016 due to the construction of the Thomson-East Coast Line. The site for the mixed-use development was sold as part of the second wave of the Urban Renewal Department’s (later URA or Urban Redevelopment Authority) “Sale of Sites” programme. Initiated in 1967, the programme was an initiative to move urban redevelopment and renewal through the sale of sites acquired by the Government to private developers. and was initiated in 1967. Completed in 1977 – in an era of similarly designed buildings, Pearls Centre featured a 10-storey podium block with four floors of retail space and a multi-storey car park. A 12-floor block of luxury apartments was put up above the podium. The developers for the building was Outram Realty and the architect, Architectural Design Group. Its cinema would gain notoriety for screening R(A) movies.

The photographs below were taken in 2014/2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Parting Glances: the cylinder on Pearl’s Hill

2 05 2019

A last look at Pearl Bank Apartments, a Chinatown landmark and a celebrated modern building.


The time has come to bid farewell to Pearl Bank Apartments, that cylinder-shaped apartment block sticking right out – perhaps like the proverbial sore thumb – of the southern slope of Pearl’s Hill. Sold to us here in Singapore Southeast Asia’s tallest residential building during its construction, it is thought of as a marvel of innovative design in spite of a rather unpretentious appearance. Emptied of its residents, it now awaits its eventual demolition; having been sold in February 2018 in the collective sale wave that threatens to rid Singapore of its Modern post-independence architectural icons. CapitaLand, the developer behind the purchase, will be replacing the block with a new development that with close to 800 units (compared to 288 units currently).

The residential block, photographed in 2014.

Pearl Bank Apratment’s development came as part of a post-independence urban renewal effort. Involving the sale of land to private firms for development, which in Pearl Bank’s case was for the high-density housing for the middle class. The project, which was to have been completed in 1974 with construction having commenced in mid-1970, ran into several difficulties. A shortage of construction materials and labour, as well as several fatal worksite accidents, saw to the project being completed only after a delay of about two years.

An advertisement in 1976.

After the completion of the project in 1976, its developer, Hock Seng Enterprises, ran into financial difficulties and was placed into receivership in August 1978. This prompted the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to step in to purchase all eight of the block’s penthouses in 1979. The 4,000+ sq. ft. penthouses (the area included a 1,000 sq. ft. roof terrace) were resold to Civil Servants and Statutory Board officers at a price of $214,000 for an intermediate unit, and $217,000 for the corner unit – a steal even at the prices of the day!

A view from one of the penthouse units.

The 38-storey apartment block also saw problems with its lifts and for over a month in 1978, only two were in working order. Another incident that imvolved the lifts occurred in November 1986 when a metal chain of one of the lifts fell a hundred metres, crashing through the top of its cabin. It was quite fortunate that there was no one in the lift during the late night incident. The building developed a host of other problems as it aged, wearing an increasingly worn and tired appearance over time. Even so, it was still one to marvel at and one that had photographers especially excited.

Built on a C-shaped plan, a slit in the cylinder provided light and ventilation. The inside of this cee is where the complex nature of the building’s layout becomes apparent, as does its charm. Common corridors provide correspondence across the split-level apartment entrances as well as to each apartment’s secondary exits via staircases appended to the inner curve. The apartments are a joy in themselves, woven into one another across the different levels like interlocking pieces of a three-diemnsional puzzle. The result is joyous a mix of two, three and four bedroom apartments.

There have been quite a few voices lent in support of conserving the building and other post-independence architectural icons, which even if not for their architectural merit, represent a coming of age for the local architectural community and a break away from the colonial mould. Several proposals have been tabled previously to conserve the building, including one by one of its architects, Mr Tan Cheng Siong and another by the Management Corporation Strata Title Council.

Part of the waste disposal system.

That sentiment is however not necessary shared by all and the sites central location and view that it offers, does mean that the site’s development potential cannot be ignored. Among its long-term residents, a few would have welcomed the opportunity to cash in. Those occupying units on the lower floors might have had such thoughts. It seems that it was increasingly becoming less pleasant to live in some of the lower units due to choked pipes. One could also not miss the stench emanating from the rubbish disposal system.

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The view from a penthouse roof terrace.

Architectural or even historical perspectives aside, the person-on-the-street would probably not get too sentimental over the loss of Pearl Bank Apartments. Unlike the old National Library, the National Theatre or the old National Stadium in which memories of many more were made, there would have been little opportunity provided to most to interact or get close enough to appreciate the building.

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A last reflection.

All eyes I suppose are now on CapitaLand, to see what in terms of the site’s heritage –  if anything – would be retained. Based on noises being made online, the launch of the project is due in 2H 2019.


More views:


 





Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

Such is the pace at which change takes place that little exists of the Singapore those of my generation grew up with. It was one whose city streets and rural spaces, filled with life and colour, were places to discover. Lost to progress, that Singapore can never be revisited again – except perhaps through images that we are fortunate to see of them.

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

I, for one, am especially grateful to the good folks behind these images. Several collections have been publicly available through their generous donations or in some cases, through donations made by family members. These images provide us, and our generations with a visual record that in many cases would not otherwise exist of places and more importantly a way of life from a time when few had the means to capture them.

The opportunity to hear from the donors of two of these visual collections came our way this November. The first, Dr Clifford Saunders, donated an extensive and very well documented collection of over 1,400 photographs to the National Heritage Board. The images were taken by his father, Ralph Charles Saunders in the late 1950s, when he was stationed here at RAF Seletar – with his family, which included a young Dr Saunders.

Just in the middle of the last week, we were graced by the visit of another donor, Mr Paul Piollet, with whom we were able to hold a “conversation” with at the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of the Architectural Heritage Season. The unassuming Mr Piollet, now in his 80s, has certainly had a past. His career in oil took him across the world, and he found himself in Balikpapan in Kalimantan in 1970 as a result of that. It was there that he developed a fascination for Indonesia and its maritime heritage. He would also find himself in Singapore, where he immersed himself in much that went on around and on its lively streets.

Mr Piollet’s photos of a Singapore in transition are especially intriguing. We find in them a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. We can see what fascinated Mr Piollet from the many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, which were not only full of life but also filled with children (an observation was made during the “conversation” of how children are now missing from our city streets). Images of street food vendors, which Mr Piollet regularly frequented (he rattled off a few Hokkien names of local fare he enjoyed), also features in his collection.

While the focus of the “conversation” may have been on his images of Singapore (more than 180 can be found in the National Archives of Singapore), I was fortunate to be able to hear about his efforts to document the Indonesian maritime world through a brief conversation we had just before the event started.  Of particular interest to him were the wooden sail boats and the people who crewed them. Much of the craft and skill in rigging and sailing these beautiful hand-crafted boats, once a backbone of trade across parts of the widely spread archipelago, have quite sadly been lost to motorisation.

Pages out of one of Mr Piollet’s books, “Équipages et voiliers de Madura”, documenting Indonesia’s lost maritime heritage.

Thankfully, there are at least thousands of photos taken by Mr Piollet, as well as several books that he authored. Along with photographs and sketches that Mr Piollet made, there are also registry records that he copied by hand. Mr Piollet’s books, of ways of life that have since been lost, can be found at the French Bookshop at 55 Tiong Bahru Road.

“Équipages et voiliers de Madura” or “The crews and boats of Madura”, which Mr Piollet very kindly gave me a copy of.


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

One of Mr Piollet’s photos from 1975. A lost corner of Singapore that was familiar to my parents and me – where Rangoon Road met Norfolk Road and Moulmein Green – see : Moulmein Road Journeys (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

I thought this looks similar to the hairdresser that my mother used to visit at Rangoon Road with me in tow. From its name, this wasn’t it and only closer examination, looks like it was located in the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

What looks like part of the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Life as it was, when streets were not complete without the sight of children playing (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Days of street wayangs. I thought this might have been a street in the Ellenborough Market area but it seems more likely to have been Chin Nam Street (parallel to Hock Lam Street) with a view towards Fort Canning Hill  (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Pau steamers – wgich caught the eye of Mr. Piollet (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

A scene now hard to imagine on Sungei Rochor (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).


 





The passing of an old neighbourhood

5 04 2018

Old HDB neighbourhoods are a joy. Their many reminders of a gentler age, some found in old shops and kopitiams in which time seems to have left well behind, extend a welcome clearly absent in the brave new that modern Singapore has become. Sadly, it won’t be long before modernity catches up on these places. Our national obsession with renewal does mean that it will only be a question of when that these spaces will forever be lost.

One old neighbourhood experiencing a slow death by renewal is Tanglin Halt. Built in the early 1960s, its old flats – among the first that the HDB built – have already begun to make way for the new. Even before this several of the neighbourhood’s landmarks were already lost. These included the rather iconic blue city gas holder and the factories that were home to several household names such as Setron. Many of the factories, which provided the neighbourhood’s folk with employment, went in the 1990s at the end of the sites’ respective leases.  A cluster of towering new flats now mark the neighbourhood. Used in part to house the first residents displaced by the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in the neighbourhood, the cluster has also introduced a dash of modernity to the old neighbourhood with modern shops, an air-conditioned food court, and a supermarket.  The flats that were affected by SERS, referred to collectively as the “Chap Lau Chu“, were only very recently demolished with a new batch of flats soon to fill the space .

Renewal, even gradual, is taking its toll on the businesses housed in the neighbourhood centre. Many of the surviving businesses, with the displacement of their customer base, have been left with little motivation to continue operating. A recent casualty was a provision shop by the name of Thin Huat, which closed its doors for good over the weekend. Having been set up 1964 – 54 years ago – Thin Huat is one of the neighbourhood’s oldest businesses. That makes it especially sad to see it go.

Thin Huat – a few days before its closure.

Empty shelves and a photograph of its proprietor and his wife.

 





The rainbow connection

16 09 2016

A rainbow appears over the “Rainbow Flats”, as Rochor Centre is sometimes referred to, as if to say goodbye on the morning of 14 September 2016. Built to house residents and business displaced by urban redevelopment in the late 1970s, the Housing and Development Board built podium residential cum commercial development is due to make way very soon for the construction of the North-South Expressway.  For more on the complex and its last days, do visit an earlier post: Parting Glances: Rochor Centre in its last days.





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).






Canal-less Rochor

8 08 2016

Even if it is probably for the better, I shall miss seeing the now covered up Rochor Canal in my drives down the Tekka area. Buried under a temporary roadway deck for much of the period during which the Downtown MRT line was being constructed, it has already been all but forgotten and it was only the sight of the green grass that now grows on top of a permanent deck that has given me the realisation that I will never see the open canal at this stretch.

A view over the now hidden canal.

Never a pretty sight even after the river cleanup initiative launched in 1977 took away the smell that was the source of many a joke, the canal was however, one of the sights that broke the monotony of the long ride to school on the public bus. That always seemed much to take in around the area by the canal, particularly on its then stepped sides, including the sight of squatting people scrubbing their laundry.

The once open Rochor Canal, seen at the meeting of Serangoon, Selegie, Sungei, Rochor Canal and Bukit Timah Roads (National Archives Photo).

The deck of green grass is the latest addition to an area that already looks very different to the one I passed as a schoolboy. The transformation of the area, which has seen the likes of the familiar old Tekka market, Kandang Kerbau Police Station, and Stamford Estate go, as well as Kandang Kerbau Hospital move – its former premises now occupied by the Land Transport Authority, is however not complete.

An online Straits Times photo of the canal with the old Tekka Market on the right.

The canal with its stepped sides (Raymond Morris on Flickr). The SIT flats of Stamford Estate, Albert House and Rochor House can also be seen.

In a city that never rests – from a construction viewpoint, the next upheaval planned for the area is already on the cards – the construction of the North-South Expressway (NSE). That will see the much loved Rochor Centre demolished. It does also seem that, from the a Zaobao article on 7 August 2016, the NSE’s construction will also see one of the more recognisable old structures in the area still standing – the Ellison Building affected. Part of the façade of the conserved building, built by Issac or Ike Ellison for his wife Flora in 1924, will apparently have to be removed and will have to be restored. The NSE is expected to be completed in 2026.

The Ellison Building will have part of its façade removed and restored for the NSE construction.

The Ellison Building will have part of its façade removed and restored for the NSE construction.

The open Rochor Canal at the Tekka area with the Ellison Building in the background c. 1969 (Bill Strong on Flickr).





The urban redevelopment resettlement centre that became Funan

1 07 2016

The lights went out on Funan DigitalLife Mall last night. The well-loved mall will be closed for three years for redevelopment and from the sound of the “experiential creative hub” it is being made into, the new Funan will bear little semblance to the Funan we all knew and loved.

The lights of Funan.

The lights of Funan.

While I shall miss Funan, a dignified alternative to Sim Lim Square for electronics and IT related merchandise shopping, I shall not mourn its passing in the same way I mourn the rather iconic Hock Lam Street that it buried. What can best be described as a very colourful example of Singapore in less ordered days, is on the evidence of the many photographs and postcards that exist of it, must have been one of the city’s most photographed streets.

Hock Lam Street, as seen from Colombo Court across North Bridge Road (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

The street, at its junction with North Bridge Road,  was where the Tai Tien kopitiam (coffee shop) was located. Popular with office workers from the vicinity and shoppers from the nearby shopping streets as a lunch destination, the kopitiam or rather the five-foot-way around it, would be where I would often find myself seated for the post shopping treat my parents would give me of Hock Lam Street’s famous beef ball soup.

A popular lunch stop for office workers from the area and for shoppers from the High Street area, the Tai Tien coffee shop at the corner of Hock Lam Street and North Bridge Road (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

It is from Hock Lam that Funan in fact takes its name; Funan being the pinyin-ised Mandarin pronunciation of the Hokkien Hock Lam (福南). The name, an attempt to remember the lost icon,  is perhaps a also reminder of a period in our history when we saw fit to distort place names that reflected the diversity of the Chinese diaspora to Singapore through the Mandarinisation of many of them.

The Hock Lam Street area (in the foreground) in 1976 from which businesses were moved temporarily to the Capitol Shopping Centre - the flat roofed building seen at the top of the picture (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

The Hock Lam Street area (in the foreground) before its demolition  in 1976. Businesses displaced were moved temporarily to the Capitol Shopping Centre – the flat roofed building seen at the top of the picture, before being moved to Funan Centre in 1985 (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

Funan Centre, as it was known in its early days, was completed in 1985 after much delay (it was initially scheduled to be completed in 1979 but a design change resulted in its delay). Built as a permanent “resettlement centre” by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), it’s purpose was to house the many businesses being displaced by the huge wave of redevelopment that was then sweeping through the city, including the many hawker stalls the street had been well known for. Examples of such centres include the former Blanco Court, since converted to Raffles Hospital, and the former Cuppage Centre (now 51 Cuppage Road). The latter was built to house market vendors and food stalls from the former Orchard Road Market and the area around Koek Road and Koek Lane.

Funan with its floors of IT and Electronic shops.

Funan with its floors of IT and Electronic shops.

When it opened in early 1985, Funan Centre featured a mishmash of shops and businesses, organised by the floor according to the categories of goods and services they offered. Many had roots in the area, and moved over from a nearby temporary resettlement centre, Capitol Shopping Centre and the neighbouring temporary food centre. Already then, Funan was touted as a place to shop for computers – its opening coinciding with the dawn of the personal computing age. One floor, the sixth, was devoted to the forty to fifty shops that made up its Computer Mart.

Capitol Centre just before its demolition.

The since demolished Capitol (Shopping) Centre.

The hawkers of Hock Lam Street found themselves elevated seven floors above it in the Funan Food Paradise – described then as Singapore’s first custom built air-conditioned hawker centre, what we today are perhaps fond of referring to as a food court (it actually opened a couple of months before Scotts Picnic Food Court, which was widely recognised as being Singapore’s first air-conditioned food court). Besides the popular Beef Noodle stall from Hock Lam Street, Funan Food Paradise became well known for Carona Chicken Wing, which built up a popular following when it was located at temporary food centre.

Packing the food court up. Some may remember the original food centre on the 7th floor from which the likes of Carona Chicken WIng operated.

Packing the food court up. Some may remember the original food centre on the 7th floor from which the likes of Carona Chicken WIng operated.

The floor below Computer Mart, the fifth, featured hairdressing salons while the fourth was where one shopped for home appliances and music. The third level was where shops dealing with fashion apparel and accessories were found, including a downsized Cortina Department Store, which had moved over from Colombo Court. The second level, as it was before it closed, was the place to buy camera equipment. Fast food outlets such as A&W and Big Rooster were then found on the ground floor. A post office also made a brief appearance, opening at the end of 1985 and closing two years later.

An eatery on the first level.

An eatery on the first level.

The ownership and management of URA owned commercial property passed on to Pidemco Holdings in 1989. Pidemco Holdings, later Pidemco Land, was a privatised property ownership and management arm of URA formed in 1989. Pidemco, which is an acronym for Property Investment, Development and Estate Management Company, merged with DBS Land in 2000 to form CapitaLand, the mall’s current owners. The mall was upgraded by Pidemco in the 1990s and took on a more IT / Computer related flavour. It was renamed Funan The IT Mall in the late 1990s and Funan DigitaLife Mall in the mid 2000s.

More information on the redevelopment can be found at the following links:


Parting Glances

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Parting glances: Rochor Centre in its last days

19 05 2016

Renewal and redevelopment are words that some in Singapore dread hearing. They often translate to the loss of places we lived in or grew up with, and the break-up of communities associated with those places.  One such place that will soon join the growing list of disappearing communities is Rochor Centre (photographs below). One of several city-centre podium complexes put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) from the mid-1970s into the 1980s, it seems to have served its purpose and will now have to make way so that an underground expressway can be built.

Fading light, Rochor Centre, May 2016.

Many will remember the complex for the multi-coloured coat of paint it has in more recent times been given. For much of its 39 year history however, it has worn a less attention grabbing coat, looking its part as an aesthetically unappealing mid-1970s public housing development, lost in the confused clutter of structures built to replace the one-time shophouse dominated landscape of the area.

Rochor Centre in less colourful days (source: Online Forum / Berita Harian)

Rochor Centre in less colourful days (source: Online Forum / Berita Harian)

Built in a hurry to take in residents and businesses being displaced by the huge wave of redevelopment that was sweeping across the city, mixed-use podium complexes sprouted in double quick time across densely populated districts of the city. A feature of such complexes is the multi-level podium block in which shop and office lots, or in some instances, wet markets and food centres are housed. Residential blocks of flats, built in the same mould as the HDB flats of those days, sit on top of the podiums with the well-proportioned podium roof decks providing space to serve residents’ recreational and social needs.

Rochor Centre features a podium with three levels of shop lots.

Rochor Centre features a podium with three levels of shop lots.

As is typical of HDB podium developments = the roof deck of the podium provides space for the recreational needs of the residents.

As is typical of HDB podium developments = the roof deck of the podium provides space for the recreational needs of the residents.

A kindergarten at roof deck level.

A kindergarten at roof deck level.

One of the larger complexes in the area, the diverse mix of businesses that Rochor Centre’s podium housed, brought much more of a buzz to it than nearby complexes such as Bras Basah Complex and Waterloo Centre. Both the latter complexes housed a concentration of specialised trades; bookstores, stationery shop and watch dealers from the North Bridge Road and Bras Basah Road area in the case of Bras Basah, and motor spare parts dealers from the Rochor area in the case of Waterloo.

Not the first supermarket at Rochor Centre, Fairprice will be one of the last shops to go.

Not the first supermarket at Rochor Centre, the Fairprice outlet, which is still operating, will be one of the last shops to go.

Rochor Centre, after its completion in 1977, saw three banks, POSB, DBS and Tat Lee, set up shop. A branch of Oriental Emporium and its supermarket also moved in, as did a post office, which shifted from Queen Street. There were also many other shops, food outlets, pawnshops, goldsmith shop and due to its proximity to the popular Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple down Waterloo Street, shops dealing with religious offerings. While many shops and businesses came and went over the year, there are several that either kept relevant or managed to adapt to changing times that have stayed on.

Another of the original occupants of the shop lots - Tenpo Goldsmith and Jewellers, showing obvious signs of adapting to changing times.

Another of the original occupants of the shop lots – Tenpo Goldsmith and Jewellers, showing obvious signs of adapting to changing times.

A reminder of the centre's DBS Bank branch - one of the original occupants of the podium block.

A reminder of the centre’s DBS Bank branch – one of the original occupants of the podium block.

With the death knell being sounded on Rochor Centre, much of the buzz it was once known for has been replaced by a deafening silence. Having been acquired by the government in November 2011 as its stands in the way of the construction of the future North-South Expressway, many of its occupants have moved out well ahead of the third quarter 2016 deadline to vacate the complex.

Many businesses have moved well in advance of the deadline to vacate.

Many businesses have moved well in advance of the deadline to vacate.

The emptiness and silence that has replaced the buzz.

The emptiness and silence that has replaced the buzz.

Demolition is expected to start soon after its last tenants move out and all that will remain of it will be memories; memories that, as with those of the flood-prone but colourful Hokchia dominated neighbourhood that occupied the site before Rochor Centre, time will surely erase.

A site soon to be recycled.

A site soon to be recycled.

Possession Notice pasted on the door of a residential unit.

Possession Notice pasted on the door of a residential unit.



What occupied the site before Rochor Centre:

Rochor Centre was built over a neighbourhood with streets such as Tiwary Street, Muar Road and Angullia Road. Despite the diverse origins of its street names, the area where members of the Hokchia (also Futsing or Fuqing) community settled into. Many in the community found work as trishaw riders or coolies and as with others involved in the trades, found solace in opium and in gambling. The area, as a result, gained notoriety for its opium and gambling dens.

An extract of a street map of the area, 1969 (source: SLA Singapore Historical Map).

An extract of a street map of the area, 1969 (source: SLA Singapore Historical Map).


Parting Glances: Photographs of Rochor Centre in its last days

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Daybreak over Rochor Centre on which the sun will soon set.

Last flights at sunrise.

Last flights at sunrise.

A last delivery.

A last collection.

Last light.

Last light.

A last morning walk.

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A last walk to kindergarten.

A last ride.

A last ride.

A last wait.

A last wait.

The last roasts.

The last roasts.

A last cup of coffee.

A last cup of coffee.

A last breakfast.

A last breakfast.

A last haircut.

A last customer.

A last reflection.

A last reflection.

Last shops.

Last shops.

Last cups of coffee.

Last chill-outs.

A last elevator ride.

A last elevator ride.

A last check of the letterbox.

A last check of the letterbox.

A last Christmas.

A last Christmas.

A last Chinese New Year.

A last Chinese New Year.

A last wash.

A last wash.

Last ;pieces of laundry.

Last poles of laundry.

A last offering.

A last offering.

A last reunion dinner.

A last reunion dinner.

Last Chinese New Year visits.

A last Chinese New Year visit.

A last ride.

A last ride.

A last hamper.

A last hamper.

A last mail delivery.

A last mail delivery.

A last delivery.

A last delivery.

A last look at the basement.

A last look at the basement.

A last look before the colours fade.

A last look before the colours fade.

A last twilight.

A last twilight.






Moulmein Road journeys

6 02 2016

Moulmein Road, a road that has come to be associated with Tan Tock Seng Hospital, has for me, been a road of many journeys. It was in the area where my journey in education began, as well as one which served as a focal point for bus journeys with my mother in my early childhood.

The entrance gate to Tan Tock Seng that once stood along Moulmein Road.

The entrance gate to Tan Tock Seng that once stood along Moulmein Road at Jalan Tan Tock Seng.

My earliest memories of Moulmein Road are of these bus journeys; journeys taken at the end of the 1960s in days when Moulmein Green was still where bus rides for many started and terminated. It was at Moulmein Road that a journey on the notoriously unreliable STC bus service number 1 to the city would begin and where the journey taken to accompany my mother to the hairdresser would have ended.

Corner of Moulmein Green and Rangoon Road (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Corner of Moulmein Green and Rangoon Road (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Sadly for me, little is left of the area to connect me with days now almost forgotten. The green has long since disappeared, as has the end of Rangoon Road that brought traffic out to the green. It was at the same stretch of Rangoon Road that the hairdresser’s shop would have been found, in a row of shophouses set in from the road. All that I now remember of the hairdresser is of the hours spent keeping myself entertained with only the multi-coloured strings of the string chairs, typical of the hair salons of the era, for company.

Moulmein Green was once a starting point or destination for many a bus journey (National Archives photograph).

Another structure that has since gone missing, one that I developed a fascination for, was the rather quaint looking gatehouse (if I may call it that) of Middleton Hospital. Standing prominently across the green from Rangoon Road, it had long been a landmark in the area. It was the hospital’s crest, a black lion displayed over the entrance archway, that lent the area its name in the Hokkien vernacular, “or-sai”, Hokkien for “black lion”.

The entrance to Middleton Hospital at Moulmein Green.

The entrance gatehouse to Middleton Hospital at Moulmein Green (source: https://www.ttsh.com.sg).

The hospital, sans the gatehouse, has since 1985, become Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Communicable Disease Centre (CDC). For the time being, the cluster of buildings of the facility still serves its intended purpose having been set up as a hospital to isolate patients suffering from highly infectious diseases. The hospital, as the Infectious Disease Hospital, was established at Balestier Plain and was moved to the site in 1913. It acquired the name Middleton in September 1920 when the Municipal Council  thought it fit to recognise the contributions of Dr W.R.C. Middleton. Dr Middleton’s long years of service as the Municipality’s Health Officer from 1893 to 1920, 27 to be precise, was marked by the huge improvements made in living conditions within the Municipality in the effort to contain the spread of diseases such as cholera.

The black lion - still seen at the entrance of the CDC.

The black lion – still seen at the entrance of the CDC.

The hospital, laid out as hospitals in the days when natural ventilation and separation mattered most in preventing of the spread of infectious diseases, features widely spaced and generously airy wards set in calm and green surroundings. Very much a thing of the past in land scarce Singapore, the CDC is now the last such hospital facility still functioning in Singapore. This may not be for very much longer though. It does seem that the facility will soon fall victim to the modern world that Singapore finds hard to escape from. The site has been earmarked for future residential development and the CDC will have to move out by 2018, by which time its new site adjacent to Tan Tock Seng Hospital should be up. With that, the CDC will become the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and the little that is still left to remind us of the legacy of Dr. Middleton is at threat of being further diluted.

The view down Moulemin Road towards the area of the former Moulmein Green .

Two notable buildings that have thankfully escaped the wreckers’ ball, both of which are associated with the control of tuberculosis, are to be found up Moulmein Road from the CDC. The two rather gorgeous buildings are now used by the Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Tuberculosis Control Unit. One is the grand looking turreted structure that recently found fame through a Straits Times article at 144 Moulmein Road.

144 Moulmein Road.

144 Moulmein Road.

The house had once been the home of a Chinese towkay, Mr Lim Soo Ban. Mr Lim was the proprietor of a goldsmith’s shop in Hill Street, maintained interests in a pawnshop and was on the board of Chung Khiaw Bank. He was also a prominent member of the Hakka community and contributed to the upkeep of the since exhumed Fong Yun Thai Hakka cemetery at Holland Plain. Mr Lim passed away in December 1952 as a bankrupt. Already ill with diabetes and tuberculosis, Mr Lim’s death came just two days after the bankruptcy adjudication order was delivered. Despite an order from the Official Assignee’s office to have funeral expenses capped at $5,000, Mr Lim was given a rather grand sendoff. The “grand funeral” is one which my mother, who then lived next door, well remembers. The funeral was reported to have cost $12,000 with a procession that was said to have stretched a mile long.

Lim Soo Ban, second from the right, photographed with Tan Kah Kee in May 1949 (National Archives of Singapore photograph).

The house, I am told, was to remain empty for several years. Attempts were made by the Official Assignee to dispose of it before it came into the possession of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. It apparently saw use as a chapel for hospital staff before housing the Department for Tuberculosis Control, later the Tuberculosis Control Unit.

144 and 142 Moulmein Road.

144 and 142 Moulmein Road, both gazetted for conservation in 2014.

The house next door, 142 Moulmein Road, used more recently by the Department of Clinical Epidemiology, has also a rather interesting past. A residence for the Government Pathologist prior to the war and later a convent, it does in fact have a longer connection with the control of TB as compared to no. 144. As the Mount Alvernia convent, it was where the journey in Singapore for the nuns of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood was to begin. The order answering a call to serve at the TB wards at Tan Tock Seng, which was later run by the nuns as the Mandalay Road Hospital, arrived in 1949 and established their first dedicated residence and convent at No. 142.

142 Moulmein Road as Mount Alvernia in 1949.

Buildings of the former Mandalay Hospital.

Buildings of the former Mandalay Road Hospital at Mandalay Road.

The order of English nuns were also to be involved in the care of leprosy sufferers in Singapore. With the help of donations, the order would go on to establish Mount Alvernia Hospital in 1961.  My maternal grandmother had worked for the nuns at no. 142 and had accommodation for the family provided in the servants’ rooms behind the house and it was during this time that my mother witnessed the grand funeral next door.

Another view of 142 Moulmein Road today.

Another view of 142 Moulmein Road today.

Both 142 and 144 Moulmein Road have since been gazetted for conservation as part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan. The 2014 Master Plan, a crystal ball into the future, does also predict a journey of transformation for Moulmein Road that may only have just begun.





Last(ing) impressions

6 10 2015

Sunday, 4 October 2015, was the day we said our farewells to an old neighbourhood at Blocks 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive, which will soon be demolished. The farewell to neighbourhood built at a time of great need during the transition from statehood to nationhood and known affectionately as the ‘Chap Lau Chu’, Hokkien for ‘Ten Storey House’ for its 10 storey flats, would have left a last and perhaps lasting impression on the large numbers of people who turned up for Sunday’s farewell party

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A last stroll.

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A last hurrah.

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A last peek.

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A last song.

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The last photographs.

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A last hello.

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A last toss.

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A last pat.

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A last sit down.

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A last reflection.

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A last look (1).

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A last look (2).

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A last look (3).

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A last visit.

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The last hydrant.

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The last hydrant.

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The last tall tree.

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A last descent.

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A last show.

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A last walk.

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The last days.

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A last boundary (the boundary wall between the former Malayan Railway land and Singapore).

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A last look at Block 75.

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A last sunset.

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The last smiles.

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A last glance.

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A last gathering.

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A last stop.

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A last laugh.

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The last goodbye.

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A last shot.

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The last game.