Worth keeping

Academics feel that key sites which should be saved include some of the old Singapore Improvement Trust low-rise blocks in Commonwealth Drive.

They are where you grew up, or learnt to spell, or they provided the garden backdrop for your wedding photos.

They are what advocacy group the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) describes as Singapore's housing, industrial, schooling and leisure heritage.

These categories may not involve splendid colonial buildings, but they are valuable for the role they have played in national life, SHS secretary Yeo Kang Shua, a conservation architect, tells Melody Zaccheus.

Housing: Remaining markers of history

SINGAPORE's public housing model is praised around the world, yet significant physical milestones chronicling this success have been demolished over the years, notes Dr Yeo.

The Housing Board successfully provided affordable housing for low-income groups after it succeeded the British-run Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1960, he points out.

However, early HDB flats in Redhill and Outram Park have been replaced by modern developments.

Older ones from the SIT era, including the 14-storey 1956 Forfar House in Queenstown - the tallest block of its time - have also been torn down.

Urban historian and architect Lai Chee Kien agrees that it is important to save buildings representing each chapter of Singapore's housing history.

Academics feel that key sites which should be saved include SIT blocks 57, 61 and 67 to 73 in Commonwealth Drive; others in Redhill Close and Dakota Crescent estates; and the first terrace houses here in Stirling Road.

Blocks 45, 48 and 49 in Queenstown - the very first Housing Board public housing developments - should be protected as well, says the founder of civic group My Community, Mr Kwek Li Yong - something Straits Times readers agree on.

Heritage blogger Jerome Lim also suggests saving Block 53 in Lorong 5 Toa Payoh.

The early HDB flat has a viewing deck on the roof where dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth were taken for visits.

Leisure: Hell and older shopping havens

For many Singapore children, their introduction to the 10 gory courts of hell courtesy of Haw Par Villa theme park was a memorable part of growing up.

Leisure places and spaces like this where families spent weekends together should be considered for conservation, says SHS' Dr Yeo. They include the rustic island of Pulau Ubin, the Chinese Garden and the Japanese Garden.

Haw Par Villa - owned by the Myanmar-Chinese Aw brothers of Tiger Balm ointment fame - was popular with families and tourists at different junctures in its history, especially its 1,000 statues depicting scenes from Chinese folklore.

It made a comeback recently as part of the Singapore Tourism Board's Tourism50 campaign to encourage Singaporeans to visit local attractions.

Then there are the Chinese and Japanese gardens side by side in Jurong East.

They hold the collective social memories of the public, say heritage experts.

The Chinese Garden, designed by a Taiwanese architect to provide a glimpse of China, served as the backdrop for many wedding shoots after it opened in 1975.

As for the 41-year-old, 13ha Japanese Garden, which is home to ponds, arch bridges and stone lanterns, the idea for it came from the late deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee.

Costing $3 million to build, it was designed by Japanese garden and landscape artist Kinsaku Nakane and three assistants from Tokyo.

Other potential conservation leisure spaces include shopping complexes such as People Park's Complex, Golden Mile Complex and Beauty World Centre.

Dr Yeo says: "These places reflect the social and family life of the community from a different era and are rich in cultural heritage."

Schools: Grounds that hold memories

Early schools like St Joseph's Institution (SJI) have been awarded conservation and preservation status, but the SHS believes the list should include those from modern-day decades.

These schools represent an evolution of building types and schooling environments, says Dr Yeo. They include the Boys' Brigade Headquarters Building in Ganges Avenue and the current James Cook University Campus in Upper Thomson Road.

The Ganges Avenue building from the 1950s was formerly the site of Havelock Primary School. It is believed to be one of the last few single-storey school compounds in Singapore.

Architect Lim Huck Chin says: "Since schools come with generous grounds, conserving such compounds will help retain the sense of space in a built-up city like Singapore."

Architect Chang Yong Ter notes: "Many of us do not have a school to return to as our alma mater. We need to increase efforts to conserve and look beyond commercial gains."

Mr Chang adds that the sense of loss is especially pertinent when it comes to taking away hallowed grounds where lifelong friendships were built during important formative years.

These buildings can continue to house other educational institutions, experts suggest.

Dr Yeo cites how the Tun Seri Lanang Secondary School's compound from 1962 was repurposed as the Goodman Arts Centre in 2011, and is now home to the National Arts Council and 48 arts groups.

He adds: "Many modern school buildings are not as decorated and are more utilitarian in nature compared to their predecessors such as SJI and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ). But they hold varied memories and social meanings for different generations of Singaporeans."

Experts, however, caution against going the way of the CHIJ compound in Victoria Street which became Chijmes, a lifestyle and entertainment complex with nightlife events. This has been criticised for being insensitive to the site's Catholic convent heritage.

Industrial: Tracking nation's progress

Often, commercial and industrial buildings are left out of the conservation process.

But the country's industrial heritage should not be ignored, as it represents Singapore's pre- and post-independence manufacturing profile, says the SHS' Dr Yeo.

Take Singapore's last two dragon kilns, at 85 and 97L, Lorong Tawas. Although their leases were extended recently, their fates had been unclear for the past 20 years as the site formed part of a government land bank awaiting long-term development. The SHS believes the Government should earmark these for conservation.

Dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, the long kilns - which look like dragons breathing when fired up - represent a time when Singapore's ceramic manufacturing industry was booming.

Experts believe there were almost 20 such kilns, which sprang up in the 1930s to support the rubber plantation industry and its demand for clay latex-collecting cups.

Another industrial example: Engineering works might not sound worth preserving, but architect Lim Huck Chin gives the example of Kwong Soon and Co Engineering Works at 2, Cavan Road.

He says it represents a time when Singapore was home to numerous family enterprises which began expanding after World War II.

Others on the SHS conservation wish list include the two hangars of Singapore's first civil airport, the Kallang Airport. Designed by Frank Dorrington Ward, the chief architect at the Public Works Department, the 1937 compound was built in the style of early modernist British architecture, with art deco details.

The main terminal building was awarded conservation status in 2008 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, but Dr Yeo says: "The main building alone does not tell the whole story of Singapore's infrastructural heritage. Saving the hangars will give context and meaning to the entire site.

"We have already lost the auxiliary buildings of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station such as its service yard. Let's not lose these historic hangars which are part of the airport's ecosystem."

Overlooked gem: Area rich in history

Another on the SHS' wish list of places to preserve in terms of their national role is little-known Tanjong Malang.

Tanjong Malang, in the Palmer and Hill road area, is dominated by the nearby Shenton Way business district and tends to get overlooked even though it is rich in history from the colonial period to the present day.

It was where Sir Stamford Raffles hanged the body of merchant Syed Yasin in chains after he had stabbed Colonel William Farquhar in 1823.

Scholars believe the site must have been important enough and home to a thriving community to have been selected for the gruesome public display. SHS' Dr Yeo says the relatively small area "has rich and important layers of history which are hard to find elsewhere".

Significant structures include the Keramat Habib Noh shrine at the top of 49 steps at 37 Palmer Road. The religious site was named after a Muslim saint who meditated on the hill, and who died in 1866.

Then there is Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple in Palmer Road. It is one of the oldest Hakka institutions in Singapore, dating back to the pre-colonial era when the Hakkas built a shrine to the deity Tua Pek Kong.

The remnants of a Parsi burial site from 1828, such as ruined memorial structures, and a small hill from a former fort on Mount Palmer still exist.

Tanjong Malang is also the former home of Singapore Polytechnic, established on Prince Edward Road in 1954.

It represents independent Singapore's foray into technical tertiary education and was where technologists and professionals were trained.

The complex was designed by pioneer architecture firm Swan and MacLaren, which was also behind the design of Raffles Hotel. Today, the site is occupied by Bestway Building and houses offices.


This article was first published on June 21, 2014.
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