History gets funky

History gets funky

The venue is associated with a World War II battle where Malay Regiment soldiers fought to the bitter end against the Japanese army. However, death was the last thing on Ms Raina Yong's mind when she chose to tie the knot there.

The 33-year-old held her wedding at the outdoor space in front of Reflections At Bukit Chandu. The housewife paid about $2,000 to rent the venue for half a day in 2012.

"I did not want a mainstream location and felt that the charm of the old colonial house was a perfect setting for my outdoor wedding," she says of the building, now a World War II interpretative centre under the purview of the National Heritage Board (NHB).

It is one of several historic sites being used for private and community functions. With their old-world architecture, these sites are a magnet for luxe events such as fashion showcases and chi-chi private dinners.

For example, glamazons clad in Calvin Klein strutted last week in the midst of dramatic Art Deco architecture at the former Kallang Airport.

Singapore's first airport, which ceased air operations in 1955, has hosted art exhibitions and parties over the last few years. At the end of the month, luxury brand Hermes will showcase its men's collections there.

The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station is another sought-after venue for private events. Hermes and street label Fred Perry have held functions there. Last September, spiffy vintage cars and bicycles lined up alongside the rail tracks in an exhibition organised by a vintage car club and the heritage board.

As a trade-off for the uniqueness of the venue, organisers of such private events say they are prepared to put up with inconveniences tied to renting a heritage location, such as the lack of air-conditioning and having certain areas fenced off.

For example, some areas such as the railway tracks were off-limits to the 1,300 guests at Fred Perry's 60th anniversary party at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in 2012. At the station, gazetted as a national monument since 2011, the brand mounted a street market, a film screening and a concert.

The lack of air-conditioning at historic sites is also a bugbear, says Ms Crystal Chua, 39, director of culinary company My Private Chef. Her company has held dinners and cocktail mixers at places such as Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Reflections At Bukit Chandu and Asian Civilisations Museum.

Ms Chua says some corporate clients turn down locations if they cannot dine in air-conditioned comfort.

To cope with the heat, she uses air coolers. She paid about $30,000 in rent to use the railway station for four days, "comparable" with renting a hotel ballroom, she says. Guests pay about $250 a head for a four-course European or Asian meal, customised to the clients' requirements.

If a site is near a residential area, such as the railway station, residents may complain about noise. Events have to end at 10pm at the station and require permission from the Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar GRC, Ms Indranee Rajah, and the police, says Ms Chua.

Holding parties in conserved buildings, such as the NUS Baba House - built around 1895 and once the ancestral home of a Straits-Chinese family - comes with other complications.

For example, an open flame for cooking or warming food is not allowed, says the NUS Baba House's guest relations and outreach manager Poonam Lalwani, who is in her 30s. If the tok panjang (Peranakan long table) is used for a buffet, she says, a double layer of tablecloth must be laid over the antique table to protect it.

Transporting items to a heritage site is also tricky business, says Mr Rene de Monchy, head of marketing at Asia Pacific Breweries Singapore.

The company held its invite-only Heineken Green Room party at the former Kallang Airport in 2011, but had to supervise the moving of bulky items to prevent damage to the site, he says.

The inconveniences have turned off some visitors and guests: The Singapore Biennale, which used the former Kallang Airport as one of its venues in 2011, moved to the downtown Bras Basah-Bugis precinct for last year's edition of the contemporary art extravaganza.

Biennale visitors in 2011 had complained of the lack of air-conditioning and the site being too far removed from downtown museum venues.

Says Singapore Art Museum's director, Dr Susie Lingham: "While buildings and spaces off the beaten track have their own charms, to transform a defunct space into an international arts destination requires investment and effort."

In spite of the hassle, organisers say they persist in holding private events at historic sites to appeal to consumers hungry for an iconic venue, away from a regular function room.

An unexpected location shakes up the dining scene, says My Private Chef's Ms Chua. "We have top-notch hotels and restaurants here, but to really impress guests, I need a unique location and experience where people cannot readily walk in and buy," she explains.

A historic setting also lends a dramatic backdrop to an event, says Mr David Christie, 50, assistant honorary secretary of the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register.

The car club partnered the NHB for an exhibition of more than 50 vintage cars and bicycles at the railway station last September, which about 3,000 members of the public attended.

The club had previously held open days at Memories At Old Ford Factory, a former Ford vehicle assembly plant and the site of the British colonial government's formal surrender of Malaya to the Japanese on Feb 15, 1942.

"Exhibiting vintage cars at a railway station of old was a natural fit because of the transport link - there was no need for banners or signs because the nostalgic feel of the place did the job," he explains.

The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) says there is "growing interest" in using state property for ad-hoc events and it issues short-term licences for events on state properties, such as the railway station as well as the former Central Police Station in Beach Road and View Road Hospital in View Road. A list of these sites is available on the authority's website and updated every six months.

Last year, 119 Non-Renewable Temporary Occupation Licences were issued, says a SLA spokesman. These were used for purposes such as location filming, fashion shows and product launches.

The numbers appear to have gone up. In 2012, about 30 such licences were issued, according to a Straits Times report earlier this year.

Other organisations which run heritage sites, some of which have been gazetted as national monuments, say they do not actively promote venue rentals.

The NUS Baba House has done just 12 events since 2008, while the NHB says its spaces are mostly used for "public programmes that benefit the general public".

Heritage experts say that the contemporary use of heritage sites gives private brands greater cultural capital, but warn that the glitz could gloss over important historical happenings, such as painful wartime memories, and entrench a heritage divide - the idea that visiting a heritage site is reserved for the wealthy.

Places that have stood the test of time are valued by high-end marketing campaigns eager to associate their products with this quality, says assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun, who teaches at Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

"But there is a possibility that these sites would be too exclusive and expensive for the public who, we must not forget, was the group to give these sites like the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station their historical significance and their heritage value," says Dr Liew.

Even then, exclusive events could stir greater public interest in a historical site, says Associate Professor Chang Tou Chuang from the National University of Singapore's department of geography. Even if someone is unable to attend an expensive dinner, he can visit sites such as Reflections At Bukit Chandu, which houses a museum.

To prevent a heritage divide, insist on community participation, says Dr Liew.

This could take the form of having low-rental flea markets, affordable eateries or a small section cordoned off for invited guests, with public viewing and participation available, he says.

Furthermore, sites associated with death plumb the sensitive depths of "dark tourism", says Prof Chang.

"When commercialised or festive events are held at places such as cemeteries, Labrador Park or Bukit Chandu, it could stir up painful memories and organisers need to be sensitive and mindful of these," he explains.

That aside, some guests at private events say the historic setting can provide pleasurable detours down memory lane.

Broadcast designer Alicia Wong took her 70-year-old aunt to the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register's event at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station last September, where her aunt waxed nostalgic after viewing a black Morris Minor, the same type of car she used for her first driving lessons in the 1960s.

Says Ms Wong, who is in her 30s: "It would be odd if the exhibition was in a shopping mall, for example, because it doesn't quite gel. The old railway location gives good picture opportunities and, above all, tells the story."


Built as a terminal station for the Federated Malay States Railway which rumbled through Malaysia and Singapore, the building - with its vaulted high ceiling and murals representing scenes of Malayan industries such as rubber and padi-planting - was designed by architecture firm Swan and Maclaren.

The station opened in 1932 to great fanfare and what was seen at the time as a boon to travellers with conveniences galore: a waiting room, refreshment bar, hairdressing salon and hotel.

The station closed in 2011 when rail operations moved to Woodlands under a historic land swop deal between Singapore and Malaysia.


This World War II interpretative centre in Pepys Road is housed in a black-and-white colonial bungalow, situated close to the site of the Battle of Pasir Panjang.

The battle was where 1,400 Malay Regiment soldiers defended Singapore against a 13,000-strong Japanese army in February 1942. The regiment lost 159 men in the battle.

The site comes under the purview of the National Heritage Board.


TThis former Straits-Chinese ancestral home in Neil Road, which dates back to the end of the 19th century, is a gift from Ms Agnes Tan, the last surviving child of Peranakan community leader Tan Cheng Lock, to the National University of Singapore.

It opened in September 2008 and is a heritage house, furnished like a traditional Peranakan home and open to visitors by appointment.


This gate rests on Fort Canning or Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill), which is believed to be where the ancient Malay kings of Singapore used to rule.

The gate is a remnant of a fortress on the hill from 1861 to 1926, which protected Singapore against attack by sea and gave the European population living in the colony a refuge from local disturbances.

Venues around Fort Canning Park, including Fort Gate, can be rented. The park is under the purview of the National Parks Board.


This was built by the British colonial government in the 1930s as Singapore's first commercial international airport, placing Singapore as the gateway between Britain and Australia.

Kallang Airport operated from 1937 to 1955, after which air operations moved to Paya Lebar, where a larger airport was built.

The People's Association took over the Kallang Airport site in the early 1960s until it moved to its current site in Tyrwhitt Road in 2009.

The former airport was gazetted in December 2008 for conservation. The area is set to be a lifestyle hub with a mix of commercial, hotel, entertaiment, arts and community uses, although the Urban Redevelopment Authority says it is exploring interim uses for the site for the next 10 years, to complement the nearby Sports Hub.

What do you think of private or commercial events being held at heritage sites? E-mail suntimes@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 20 in The Straits Times.

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