Ever since I started hitting the yoga studio on a very regular basis, I must say that it has been awhile since I took the weekends to explore Singapore beyond the usual hangout places. Just today, my ever-so-cool Mum, another friend and I spent a couple of hours with a volunteer guide from the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) to uncover some of the gazetted National Monuments that are located right in the heart of the city! Well, I know that most people my age ain’t all that big on checking out historical places but for those who are keen to know more about the captivating stories of our country’s eventual past, do sign up for the mailing list to get updates on the upcoming monuments walking tours!
Constructed in 1937, the Former Cathay Building (now The Cathay) used to house the famous Cathay Restaurant (still in existence in the current building), luxury apartments, as well as the flagship 1,300 seat Cathay cinema belonging to the Cathay Organization. At 79.5m high, this 17-storey building was the first skyscraper in Singapore and also the tallest building in Southeast Asia at that point of time. In fact, the building has ‘played’ many roles throughout its 77 years of existence.
During the country’s fight against the Japanese invasion, the building served as a Red Cross casualty station and shelter before the Japanese military took over during the Japanese Occupation and used it as a centre to broadcast wartime propaganda! Do you know that the Japanese military also stuck human heads belonging to beheaded looters onto the poles and had them placed outside of Cathay building? Haunting. In the post-war years, the building was converted into the 60-rooms Cathay Hotel which was frequented by the rich & famous during its hey days, and later on, an office space in the early 1970s. What you see in present day is a juxtaposition of the old Cathay Building and the newly furbished mall, a sight that shows that both old and new can co-exist together.
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For those of us who visit Orchard Road often, I’m sure that the MacDonald House needs no introduction. It is the last remaining office building in facing brick in town and is currently home to international companies such as Citibank Singapore and Mccann Worldwide. Ironically, did you know that it was first designed and built for another bank, Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC), back in 1949?
Anyway, this distinctive red brick building is more known for the MacDonald House blast and bombings that happened in 1965, which resulted in the death of 3 innocent civilians. The explosion was so powerful that all the glass windows in buildings located within 100m radius from the MacDonald House were shattered. It was an attack of retaliation by 2 Indonesian men during the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, when Singapore was still part of Malaysia.
If you have been reading the news lately, you would have certainly read about the recent controversy of Indonesia naming a navy ship after the 2 Indonesian saboteurs, as well as the withdrawal of the Singapore Armed Forces delegation from the Jakarta International Defence Dialogue exhibition just a couple days’ ago. Sensitive issues.
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We have finally come to the highlight of our heritage walk – An opportunity to walk beyond the front doors of the House of Tan Yeok Nee. You can’t possibly miss this 129 years old oriental mansion that stands out like a sore thumb (in a good way) in the heart of town! Being a sucker for historic places, I have always been curious to explore the interior of this ancient house. When the opportunity to attend a heritage tour in the House of Tan Yeok Nee presented itself, I jumped at it immediately!
Do you know that this mansion is 1 of the last 2 surviving traditional Chinese mansions still in existence in Singapore? The other one is the River House in Clarke Quay, more famously known as The Forbidden City by IndoChine.
As the name clearly states, this house first belonged to a wealthy Teochew business man, Mr Tan Yeok Nee, who built his wealth through the pepper, spices, liquor and legal opium trades. It has since, changed hands many times: From a train station master’s residence (the then KTM railway), an orphanage and school for Eurasian girls, the Headquarters for Salvation Army and now, the Asian campus for the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business!
Personally, my favourite spots of the house are the beautiful and tranquil courtyards, complete with lush greenery and water features. In fact, you can barely even hear the sounds of the passing cars despite the fact that the house is located in the middle of a busy junction!
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