By Heidi Sarna
When I moved to Singapore more than a decade ago, I had the first impressions many people do. There were shopping malls, condos and HDBs as far as the eye could see, and the city-state felt largely contrived, artificial and new.
However, as a curious history lover, I knew there must be more. I was vaguely familiar with Singapore’s colonial past and its position as a strategic port over the centuries, but I was eager to peel the onion and delve deeper.
Cue Geraldene Lowe-Ismail. A legend in heritage circles, Geraldene is of Eurasian heritage and was born in Singapore a few years before the Japanese occupation in 1942. After moving to Australia to flee the war years and go to school, she returned to Singapore, married with children, and in the tour guiding business.
My new friend Meg tipped me off and I got myself on Geraldene’s email list. I eagerly signed up for one of her popular black and white house tours, following her into colonial-era government-built houses of various ages and styles all over the island, most dating back to the early 20th century.
Geraldene’s tours were quirky, from one focused on vanishing trades – a joss-stick maker, “junk” dealer and Chinese opera costume shop – to others themed on WWII battle sites, Eurasian heritage and the gorgeous rows of eclectic shophouses on Emerald Hill. She liberally sprinkled anecdotes and personal stories into her tours. I was hooked.
Many of her tours started in the main Dempsey Hill parking lot, where we’d board a minibus before Geraldene would begin her spiel. As the bus turned onto Holland Road, she would invariably wave a hand toward the Botanic Gardens and mention there was a Sultan’s palace called Istana Woodneuk hidden inside. I was intrigued by this juicy little tidbit and strained my neck to catch a glimpse of it through the trees, but I never saw a thing. And before I had a chance to ask for more details, Geraldene had moved on to another topic as the bus motored to our destination.
A bit obsessed, I started googling Woodneuk and soon a motley assortment of blogs helped me piece together the story of the wedge of land tucked into the southwestern corner of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The land is still owned by the Malaysian royal family, who had built two grand mansions on the hillock there more than a century ago, with manicured lawns and views of Swan Lake. I found old photos and newspaper articles referencing the houses, and blogs indicating that the ruins of Woodneuk still survived.
With a bit of bushwhacking, curious folks like me could creep into the foliage and see for themselves. On my second attempt at trying to find “the house,” as it became known to my family and friends, I found it.
With two curious pals in tow, we followed a faint path off of Holland Road through dense vegetation, trekking up and over two small ridges. In just 10 minutes we had arrived at a clearing and the remains of an old road. A dozen steps later, and there it was. The house!
It was thrilling to find what I had been preoccupied with for several months. It emerged from the overgrowth like a scene in a movie. Trees and tall grass nestled the crumbling, but still majestic house, as if nature wanted to take it back.
I loved that Woodneuk was hidden in plain sight – we could hear the traffic from Holland Road, but no one could see us.
Giddy with delight, yet with bated breath, we walked towards the hauntingly beautiful abandoned house, past broken bits of blue glazed roof tiles scattered around the grounds.
We entered through the porte cochère, where I imagined carriages and early cars once deposited the residents and their visitors. We stepped up into the main hall, through doorless doorways, and across worn-out floors with patches of herringbone wood flooring still intact.
We gingerly climbed one wing of the grand double staircase, hugging the edge near the railing so we wouldn’t fall through the rickety planks. At the top were the sleeping quarters, where vines and plants had taken root in rooms once filled with fancy furniture and carpets. One section was crisscrossed with charred beams from a roof fire some years ago, while a swarm of bees occupied another corner.
From the sweeping wraparound balcony, we pictured the expansive views the occupants once had of Swan Lake, surrounding plantations, the Tanglin Barracks and maybe even the sea.
We imagined the parties back in the day, where the ‘who’s who’ of Singapore would drink stengahs and sip champagne from lead crystal, fanned by punkah wallahs and served by a retinue of servants, the moon reflecting in the lake below.
Our morning at ‘the house’ opened a door to an earlier version of Singapore and convinced me that if you looked hard enough and ventured off-the-beaten track, Singapore harbored historic treasures of a wonderous kind for curious birds and history buffs.
Connecting the Dots…
Around the time I discovered ‘the house’, I was visiting a friend in New York City, where we had lived for many years before Singapore. I picked up a book on my friend’s coffee table – Secret New York. The little gem of a book was packed with one-page “secret” things and places all around New York City, from the Hare Krishna Tree to the Broadway clock tower and one of George Washington’s teeth on display in an old downtown tavern.
I immediately thought about a Secret Singapore book. I contacted the publisher listed inside, Frenchman Thomas Jonglez of Jonglez Publishing, and asked him if I could write a Singapore version of his very cool series. After months going back and forth with Thomas, proposing lists of potential secrets, he finally commissioned me to pen Secret Singapore!
The book of more than 100 secret places and things has taken several years to research and write, with contributions from historians Kevin Y.L. Tan and Jerome Lim. I’ve walked, driven and steered my bicycle all over the island, often with my friend Robin in tow, taking notes and snapping photos of Singapore’s many little hidden treasures.
A Teaser from the Book, Secret Singapore
Here is a taste of a handful of secrets featured in the book.
Built in the 1930s on the site of an earlier mansion from the late 19th century on a hillock between Holland Road and Tyersall Avenue, Woodneuk House served at times as the official Singapore residence of the Sultan of Johor. Abandoned now for decades, a shell of the house survives, including the pretty wrought iron balcony railings, carved ventilation panels and streamline Modernist sun-shade fins above the window openings.
The colonial-looking black and white building across from IKEA on Alexandra Road is surrounded by the modern Anchorage condo and Anchorpoint Shopping Centre. And with good reason. The 1930s-built two-story structure was the brewmaster’s house for the top taster of the Archipelago Brewery Company (ABC) which once operated a thriving factory on the grounds, brewing its main product – Anchor beer.
Chee Guan Chiang House
Sandwiched between towering apartment blocks and further obscured by over-grown trees just off of Grange Road lies one of Singapore’s most outstanding Art Deco houses – the rundown and abandoned Chee Guan Chiang House. This dwelling, and the smaller adjacent one, were designed and built in the 1930s by Ho Kwong Yew (1903–1942), one of Singapore’s earliest and leading architects of the Modern Movement.
Marc Chagall Synagogue Windows
Gaze upward to see the colorful blue and gold stained glass windows of the Jacob Ballas Centre on Waterloo Street, adjacent to the Maghain Aboth Synagogue. If you look carefully, you will notice how these locally-made windows resemble those made in 1962 by the famous Jewish artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) for the Abbell Synagogue at the Hadassah Ein Karem hospital in Jerusalem. Chagall’s original windows number 12 in all, signifying Jacob’s blessings on his 12 sons and Moses’ blessings on the 12 tribes of Israel.
Shinto Shrine in the Jungle
As fierce as the Japanese were as soldiers and captors, they were equally as intense in their reverence to nature and to their ancient Shinto faith, a belief system based on seeking a balance between nature, humans and the divine. At the start of the Japanese occupation of Singapore (1942-1945), thousands of British and Australian prisoners of war were put to work on building projects in the region. One project at home was the Syonan Jinja, or the Light of the South Shinto shrine, built atop a forested hill along the far western edge of the MacRitchie Reservoir, where the most intense fighting in Japan’s battle for Singapore had taken place.
Secret Singapore will be published in early 2020.