The Italian captain who bought Pulau Bukom …

10 06 2017

Except perhaps for sculptor Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose magnificent work adorns the old Supreme Court, little is known of Singapore’s many connections with the Italian community – except perhaps of the community’s many culinary offerings we are now able to find. It may therefore come as a surprise that the connections do go well back –  even before Italy as an entity existed and that Singapore’s Pulau Bukom was once owned by an Italian man.

Explore Singapore’s surprising Italian connections at The Italian Connection at the Fullerton Hotel.

Pulau Bukom is perhaps better known to us as the island on which Singapore’s successful journey into the oil refining trade, had its beginnings. Shell, who built and operate the refinery, has long been associated with the island. 20 acres of it was bought by the company in 1891 for the purpose of kerosene storage. The transaction netted the island’s owner,  Capitano Giovanni Gaggino a tidy profit. Gaggino, an Italian master mariner, shipowner and adventurer, purchased the island for $500 in 1884 with the intention to supply freshwater to shipping. His purchase of “Freshwater Island” as it was informally known as, was one of many of Gaggino’s ventures here. He would spend 42 of his 72 years in Singapore from 1876 and passed on in 1918, whilst on a trip to Batavia. Capitano Gaggino was also known to have authored several books, one of which was the very first Malay-Italian dictionary.

Capitano Giovanni Gaggino, who once owned Pulau Bukom (source: Reproduction of “La Vallata del Yang-Tse-Kiang” by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Open source).

Even before Gaggino, Italians – many of whom were involved in shipping and trade, made landfall. One rather famous Italian, the renowned botanist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Odoardo Beccari, used Singapore as a stepping stone to his well documented explorations of the region’s forests. Credited with the discovery of the giant corpse flower, Beccari also documented a month he spent in March 1866 at the “wooden bungalow” of the Italian Consul, Signor Giovanni Leveson (a.k.a. Edward John Leveson) on the Johor Strait. The bungalow is thought to be where Woodlands in Singapore’s north got its name from.

Odoardo Beccari (source: Sailko, Creative Commons License 3.0).

Like Capitano Gaggino, Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli spent a substantial part of his life in Singapore. He arrived from Bangkok in 1921 and remained – except for a period of internment during the Second World War (as a citizen of Italy, one of the Axis states, he was interned in Australia from 1941 to 1945), until his retirement in 1956 . He worked tirelessly and amassed a huge portfolio of work that began with the second Ocean Building on which he provided the decorative artificial stone facings.

Composite image of Rodolfo Nolli and the main (south) entrance of the GPO. Two sets of works – the coat of arms and a pair of flambeau compositions, went missing during the Japanese Occupation (source of images: National Archives of Singapore).

The majestic Ocean Building did not only launch Nolli’s career in Singapore, it also spelled a new era for the bund along Collyer Quay. Before the end of a decade, three even grander edifices would be added: the Union Building, a second generation Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, and the grandest of them all, the Fullerton Building. The additions, all of which Nolli had work done on, provided the bund with an appearance that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets)..

Built to house the General Post Office, several municipal offices as well as the exclusive Singapore Club, the Fullerton was decorated with some of Nolli’s more exquisite pieces of the era. Two precast sculptural works: a pair of flambeau compositions and a royal coat of arms – symbols of enlightenment and empire – adorned the main entrance to the GPO. Sadly, these disappeared during the Japanese Occupation and all that can now be seen of Nolli’s contributions in the building is the magnificent plasterwork of the barrel vaulted ceiling of the Singapore Club’s Billiard Hall. The hall is now the Straits Room of The Fullerton Hotel. The hotel has occupied the Fullerton Building since 2001.

The Straits Room is now where the only works of Rodolfo Nolli’s in the Fullerton Building to have survived can be found.

The historic waterfront, 1932, to which Nolli added decorative finishing touches, and the waterfront today (source: top image, Singapore Philatelic Museum; lower image, Jerome Lim).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose works are also found in Bangkok – where he spent 7 years of his life, in parts of Malaysia and also in Brunei, was bestowed with a knighthood by the Italian Crown in 1925. This is an honour that another Italian gentleman connected with the Fullerton Building, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, has also received. Cavaliere Viterale, the GM of Fullerton Heritage, is a well respected member of the hospitality industry and it was for his contributions to it that he received the honour. The building, which was opened in June 1928, celebrates its 89th anniversary this month.

Nuns of the Canossian order speaking to Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale at the exhibition opening. The order, which has origins in Italy, first arrived in Singapore in 1894 (source: The Fullerton Heritage).

More on the Italian Community, including on an Italian order of missionaries whose work in tending to those in need continues to this very day, the Canossian Daughters of Charity, can be discovered at an exhibition that I curated with Zinke Aw, “The Italian Connection”. The exhibition, The Fullerton Hotel’s East Garden Foyer, runs until 18 July 2017. Information on the exhibition can also be found at The Fullerton Heritage’s website and through the official press release.

 

 

 





More northern light

19 04 2016

Another dramatic show of light captured along Singapore’s northern coast, this one after sunset at 7.18 pm on the 15th of June 2014. The view is towards the Shell Woodlands jetty and across the Straits of Johor over to Johor Bahru. The point at which this was captured is in the are of Woodland Waterfront where the Royal Malaysian Navy maintained their main naval base, KD Malaya, until 1979.





The magazine under Talbot’s Hill

7 02 2015

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

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The passage to the storage area.

The passage to the storage area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More photographs of the bunker and its surroundings

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


 





Light after dark (The West End)

28 08 2013

A view along the Straits of Johor, in the area where the Malaysian Navy had once maintained a base which served as their main base until 1979, some 15 years following the separation of Singapore from Malaysia. The view, taken at 7.41 pm on 25 August 2013, is one taken across what would have been the west end of the huge British naval base towards what would have been Rotherham Gate to the left of the picture, the Causeway in the middle and Johor Bahru in Malaysia to the right. The jetty seen in the photograph is the Shell or Woodlands Jetty which is still in use. The area is one I made a first acquaintance with back in the early 1970s, after the area had been opened up following the withdrawal of British forces in 1971. That was when the since demolished derelict Ruthenia Oiling Jetty, served as one of two places along Singapore’s northern coastline to which my father would take me to drop crab nets from. The area has since been remade and is now referred to as the Woodlands Waterfront.

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Sunset over the strait

27 08 2013

The setting sun over Johor Bahru, seen across the Tebrau Strait or Straits of Johor from Woodlands at 7.04 pm on 25 Aug 2013.

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Rooms with more than a view

28 07 2013

Tucked away on a hill some 38 metres above street level in an obscure corner of Singapore, is a building with a reputation for being one of the scariest places in Singapore. The building, better known to most who are familiar with it as the former View Road Hospital, was in fact once used as a barracks to house Asians serving in the Naval Base Police. The Naval Base Police, which was disbanded when the British forces vacated the Naval Base in 1971, recruited its members from far and wide and had a large contingent of Sikh policemen which does explain why there was once a Sikh temple located next to the barracks. The building’s history does seem to go a little further back – a 1968 map of the Naval Base has it also as the “Old Maritime HQ”, of which I have not been able to find out anything on.

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Following the pullout of the British forces, the building was converted for use as an secondary hospital to supplement the overcrowded Woodbridge Hospital, providing rehabilitation for recovering mental patients, particularly those with chronic schizophrenia. The first batch of 34 patients were moved into the 250 bed hopsital in September 1975. The rehabilitation  programme included providing skills training to the patients to allow them to return to society. The hospital was shut in 2001 and the building was converted into the View Road Lodge – a foreign workers’ dormitory which functioned until a few years back. The building today lies unoccupied.

View Road Lodge in January 2011.

View Road Lodge in January 2011.





A view down the Strait

8 07 2013

The view northwestwards down the Straits of Johor from Kampong Wak Hassan is one which would have once looked across to the part of the strait where the huge naval base which was completed in 1938 by the British. The base which stretched from what is Sembawang Park today all the way along the strait to what today is the west end of Woodlands Waterfront close to the Causeway, was opened up in 1971, allowing public access to what was a restricted area.

A view down the Strait

The view down the Strait at 6.52 am this morning.

The area is one I have had many interactions with since the 1970s. The jetty seen in the photograph, is one I spent many nights at fishing for crabs as was another jetty at the west end of the former base – the then already derelict Ruthenia Oiling Jetty which has since been demolished. The 1970s were interesting times for the area, with the opening up of it allowing some parts of the area to be exploited for non-military use. One use of a small part of the area one was perhaps one we in modern Singapore have largely forgotten, a reminder of a period of South-East Asian history when times were less certain. This particular use will be one of the subjects of an exploration by two popular television personalities for an episode on the Woodlands area of a Chinese TV series, Secrets in the Hood, to be televised on Channel U on 3 September 2013. Do look out for it and other interesting hidden secrets from neighbourhoods across the heartlands of Singapore in the series which will air from 6 August to 13 September 2013 in the 9 to 10 pm slot.

A popular TV personality will be exploring the area in an episode of a Chinese television series which will be aired on 3 September on Channel U.

A popular TV personality will be exploring the area in an episode of a Chinese television series which will be aired on 3 September on Channel U.








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