By Asif Chowdhury
Many of our readers are aware of the quaint and quiet enclave of Dempsey Hill in the middle of bustling Singapore. A sprawling area of over 200-acres, Dempsey Hill boasts over twenty cafes, bars, bistros and restaurants, offering both casual and fine dining, along with antique stores, furniture stores and grocery shops, selling products from all over the world. There is even an art gallery that one can visit free of charge.
What is less known, though, is the fascinating history of the Dempsey Hill area that dates back over one hundred and fifty years. Some of us may not be aware that the restaurants and bars we love to frequent today served as a military barracks, a military hospital, a chapel and jail cells for prisoners of war (POWs). Indeed, Dempsey Hill witnessed and played key roles in two World Wars, the Indian Mutiny and the Japanese occupation during World War II.
The best starting point to begin the story of Dempsey Hill is in the 1850s, when it used to be a flourishing nutmeg plantation known as Mount Harriet. The plantation, jointly owned by a British Colonel and a local businessman, was larger than the Dempsey Hill area, covering what is now the Botanical Gardens with over 1,600 trees. Towards the late 1850s, an unknown disease swept through the plantation and killed most of the trees, meaning the owners had to cease the Mount Harriet plantation operation in 1857.
Singapore was a British colony during those days and served as a strategic area for the British, where they deployed a significant number of troops. The British Forces Army Garrison used to be located around Fort Canning during the 1850s, close to Singapore’s commercial district. This was a bustling business area for merchants and, concerned that their business, shops and warehouses could be adversely affected in the case of a military operation in Singapore, they were not happy that the Garrison was located so close to their business district.
When Mount Harriet ceased to exist due to the plantation disease, however, it presented opportunities for both the businessmen who owned it and the British military. With no possibility of resurrecting the plantation, the owners were eager to get rid of the land, while, at the same time, the British armed forces saw the possibility of relocating the Garrison from Fort Canning to Mount Harriet. Both parties took advantage of the opportunity and Mount Harriet was sold to the British for 25,000 Spanish Dollars in 1860.
Soon after the purchase, the British military began building the new facility comprising ten service barracks, each housing 50 service men. It was to be a huge compound consisting of separate cookhouses, washhouses, a school, a chapel and other facilities for the troops, as well as a 240-bed military hospital, known as Tanglin Hospital. While the barracks, later known as the Tanglin Barracks, was completed in the early 1860s, the troops didn’t occupy the facility until 1867.
In 1911, as part of the compound’s upgrading, the original palm-thatched roofs of the buildings were replaced with red French tiles which we see today. Very little has changed since then and the architecture of Dempsey Hill we see and enjoy today stands almost as it did over a hundred years ago.
Over the past century, the barracks have seen their fair share of war and unrest. The first notable incident, known as the Indian Mutiny, took place in February 1915 amid World War I. Approximately 800 Indian soldiers revolted against the British armed forces in Singapore – a clear demonstration of the Indian Army’s disapproval of the British occupying their homeland of India. The Indian army broke into Tanglin Barracks unannounced and killed many of the British Officers, while freeing the German POWs. The situation intensified and the British military declared Martial Law, with all European women and children being evacuated to local hotels with full military protection, or to the ships in the harbor, ready to sail if it reached a crisis point. The mutiny, lasting more than seven days before it could be brought under control, was the first of many military incidents that the barracks of Dempsey Hill would witness in years to come.
In 1942, during World War II, the British colonial government surrendered to the Japanese. The barracks that was home to many soldiers became their prison and, as POWs, they were regularly dispatched by the Japanese military to do, at best, menial tasks or, at worst, hard labor in horrifying conditions throughout Southeast Asia. In fact, many of the POWs who were involved in building the famous Thailand-Burma Railway were dispatched from Tanglin Barracks. Finally, in 1945, after more than three-and-a-half years of suffering in the barracks, the Japanese surrendered and the British, marking the end of World War II and, once again, the Allied force took over Tanglin Barracks where British soldiers lived in relative peace until 1970. During this time, it was assigned as the General Headquarters of the Far East Land Forces and became a vibrant place, well known for the entertainment and parties thrown by the British troops. Local Singaporeans also started to put up shops and eateries in the area to support them.
When the British vacated the barracks in 1970, the compound remained vacant before the newly formed Ministry of Defense for Singapore made it their headquarters in 1972, and the area became known as the Tanglin Camp, housing young Singaporean men participating in the national service. It was later handed over to the Land Office in 1989 when it was sold to the private sector for retail outlets and gradually transformed into a bohemian district over the 1990s, when antique shops, furniture and carpet warehouses began to spring up. As the appeal for this vast open space with historical architecture became popular with both the expatriate and local communities, the Singapore Land Authority began redeveloping it and rebranded the area as Dempsey Hill in 2007, named after General Miles Christopher Dempsey (1896-1969). A decorated Officer, General Dempsey was the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Land Forces Southeast Asia and the General Officer leading the Malaya Command. Due to its historical significance and charming architecture, the barracks are protected under Singapore’s conservation guidelines.
Of particular interest are the locations of some of the current outlets. For example, the Red Sea Gallery was Block 9 and used to house 45 to 50 servicemen. The location of The White Rabbit restaurant used to be the ‘Ebenezer Chapel’ that served as a school for the children of the British soldiers. The interior is now beautifully restored and the restaurant is a great location for enjoying European cuisine, while appreciating the chapel’s intricate stained windows. The legendary Samy’s Curry was formerly Block 25 and was used as the Sergeant’s mess. Later, in the early 70s, it became the clubhouse of Singapore’s civil servants. Loewen by Dempsey Hill, a cluster of refurbished colonial buildings, used to be the military hospital. It now houses a spa, a yoga studio and also a pet hotel among other outlets.
Another piece of history worth mentioning is that the famous English writer, Rudyard Kipling, spent some time in Singapore in 1889. Apparently, young Kipling spent a significant amount of time exploring many parts of the city, including the Botanical Gardens and Tanglin Barracks. His observations of Singapore are recorded in his book, From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, Letters of Travel. It is rumored that Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads was inspired by the barracks of the Dempsey Hill.