Pearl Bank still special after all these years

SINGAPORE - American architect Ed Poole was so set against a proposal to put Pearl Bank Apartments up for a collective sale in 2007 that he hired a lawyer and rallied his neighbours.

The attempt failed.

"Pearl Bank is irreplaceable," said Mr Poole, 54, who lives in a penthouse unit in the landmark building along Outram Road. "There is no way you can find another apartment like Pearl Bank in Singapore."

Indeed, for residents such as Mr Poole, architectural devotees and ordinary Singaporeans alike, the horseshoe-shaped building atop Pearl's Hill, overlooking Chinatown and as far as Sentosa, is unique and should be preserved carefully.

Most of the apartment owners living there are now seeking a conservation order for the 38-storey Pearl Bank, the tallest residential building in Singapore when it was completed in 1976.

This is part of a plan thought up by the building's architect, 77-year-old Tan Cheng Siong.

The management committee plans to apply to the authorities to extend its 99-year lease and increase its gross floor area to build a 27-storey residential block above the existing carpark.

If the plan goes through, the new area can be sold and the money collected can pay for upgrading works and a lease extension, without residents having to pay extra.

While some residents of the 272 apartments and eight penthouses had wanted to cash in through a collective sale, most had feared that selling out to developers would lead to the destruction of the beacon-like building.

The conservation order will ensure that the building is kept, while helping to finance the sprucing up it badly needs, say supporters of the plan.

Residents have had to put up with peeling paint, water leaks and even rats sometimes.

"Last year, we caught about three rats in our home. We have no idea how the rats climbed up 37 floors. Maybe through the pipes," said a penthouse resident in her 40s, who gave her name only as Ms Ling.

Others complained of chipped steps in the stairwells and lifts that break down frequently.

Madam Too Poh Eng, 70, tries to take the newer of the eight lifts there. "Some lifts are so old that I recite a chant each time I take them. You never know when it will stall," said the resident on the 14th floor.

The private development has a preschool, a branch of The Little Skool-House preschool, but no swimming pool or gym.

Offices for businesses such as an architecture firm and a transport company are found on the ground floor, along with provision shop Chin Choo Trading Co, which has been shuttered for at least eight years, residents say.

Over the years, residents have also noticed more owners renting their apartments out to foreigners.

When The Straits Times visited on Monday, it found five partitioned apartments on one level. Partitioning usually means the unit is used for rental, with common spaces turned into rooms.

A 62-year-old resident who declined to be named said: "Some tenants don't take care of the property because they are just here for the short term. And the owners can't be bothered too as they don't even live here."

Despite its scruffier feel these days, Pearl Bank is still very much an icon that is home to many prominent residents. They include former Member of Parliament Chiang Hai Ding and plastic surgeon Lee Seng Teik, who was involved in the operation to separate the conjoined Nepalese twins, Ganga and Jamuna Shrestha, in 2001.

Others feel special just by living in this fabled development, which has bedrooms and living rooms that tend to be bright and airy as they lie along the curved facade of the building.

Madam Veronica Ng, 51, who has lived there since 1996, said she had viewed a number of condominiums and apartments then, but none offered Pearl Bank's spaciousness.

"It is also windy and airy, although the cleaning up is tiring," said the housewife, adding that she paid about $700,000 for her 1,755 sq ft three-bedroom home.

Ms Ling moved into one of eight penthouse units about 10 years ago with her parents.

The building could be better maintained, she said, but the location and size of its apartments are unrivalled. It is near Outram and Chinatown MRT stations, and the neighbourhood has no lack of eateries and shops, she said.

"And the view," Ms Ling added, gesturing to the city skyline outside her front door. "Where else can you get this?"

Like Mr Poole, Madam Too said she will never sell her three-bedroom unit, which she bought for around $290,000 in 1993.

Calling Pearl Bank a quiet estate in a bustling area, she said: "I know I can make a profit by selling this place now. But there is no way I can use that money to get a unit of a similar size.

"And I am old, and the profits mean little to me. I just want a comfortable home," she said.

This article was published on May 2 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.