Sunday, August 26, 2012

Oasis in the city

Straits Times: Sun, Aug 26

This traditional Chinese courtyard house - the last one standing in Singapore - has occupied its auspicious, elevated perch across from the Istana for 130 years.

While many would have passed this two- storey landmark at the junction of Penang Road and Clemenceau Avenue over the years, it takes an attentive eye and a look behind its saffron-yellow walls - now home to a graduate business school - to fully appreciate its beauty.

The whorls of coloured porcelain flowers, dragons and other figurines on the exterior roof ridge are a mere hint of the wealth of architectural detail inside the House of Tan Yeok Nee, which has about 30 halls and rooms of varying sizes designed around two central courtyards.

Decorative plaster reliefs, calligraphic poems and painted murals of animals and landscapes adorn the walls and roof ridges of this national monument. More porcelain sculptures abound, including four fist- sized open-mouthed carps, located at the four corners of one courtyard, which serve as water spouts to drain away rain water from the roofs.

The kaleidoscope of visual detail mirrors the colourful cast of characters who experienced everything from sublime joy to catastrophic loss in the house, beginning with former compulsive gambler Tan, who paid off his debts and built the house in the 1880s through his huge wealth from the pepper, gambier and opium trade here and in Johor.

At the height of his fortune, he was the highest- ranking Chinese official in Johor, but had his assets there repossessed by the state government following a reported power struggle. His Singapore courtyard house was then acquired by the British for the purpose of a new railway line.

The house subsequently became the short-lived residence of the station master of Tank Road station, where Singapore's first railway track began, though that part of the railway line to Malaysia was dismantled in the 1930s.

From 1938 to 1991, it was the Singapore and Malaysia headquarters of international relief organisation The Salvation Army, which used it as a church and to train its officers in Christian theology, social work and counselling.

During this period, the house was a beacon for the needy of all races and creeds, as well as the scene of many marriages and funerals. Among those who tied the knot there were two Salvation Army officers, Commissioner and Mrs Lim Ah Ang, who got married at the house in 1958 and lived there from 1970 to 1982.

After The Salvation Army sold the increasingly rundown house to the owner of the neighbouring Cockpit Hotel in 1991, the building changed hands twice in multi-million-dollar property deals. The house received a handsome $8-million restoration in the late 1990s by then-owner Wing Tai Holdings and RSP Architects Planners & Engineers.

Its tenant for the past 12 years is the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, which uses the building as its Asian campus. It leases the property from current owner Union Investment Real Estate, a German fund manager.

The traditional layout of the house, with halls leading to expansive courtyards flanked on either side by rooms, remains unchanged. However, some partitions between rooms have been removed to create facilities such as a lecture theatre and a function hall. These are kitted out with the latest multimedia technology, in keeping with the requirements of a prestigious business school from the United States. The first courtyard has also been enclosed in glass to keep the airconditioning in.

The myriad incarnations of the House of Tan Yeok Nee reflect the evolution of its larger neighbourhood - the now-bustling, high net-worth Orchard Road area from Dhoby Ghaut to Tanglin Road. The area began as a scenic stretch of plantations, along which numerous private houses and bungalows were built in the second half of the 19th century.

As National University of Singapore architecture professor Heng Chye Kiang noted in an essay, the house "was most probably a country retreat where Towkay Tan could enjoy the peace and quiet of the suburbs". Its site "was selected probably for its attributes of good fengshui", says Prof Heng, as it was located on high ground, overlooking a valley

(Orchard Road) and a stream (Stamford Canal). It also had a view of the Istana - the Government House built 13 years earlier - in the distance.

The tranquillity of its neighbourhood was shattered when a railway line was constructed at Tank Road, as Clemenceau Avenue was called until 1919.

Although it later reverted to a vehicular road, the adjacent Penang Road went from a small lane to a major Orchard Road artery from the late 1960s. The Government widened the road by acquiring part of the land in front of the House of Tan Yeok Nee, by then occupied by The Salvation Army.

The non-profit organisation eventually found the national monument too expensive to maintain. Recalls Commissioner Lim, now 80: "The roof carvings were always falling off and there was no one in Singapore who knew how to repair them. The roofs were leaking all the time and after tunnelling began for Dhoby Ghaut MRT in the 1980s, cracks appeared on the walls."

The $20 million the charity got from selling the house paid for a new and larger headquarters at Bishan. Later, when Wing Tai took over the house, it organised field trips to various parts of southern China to study similar courtyard dwellings and recruit about 80 skilled artisans to restore the house.

More than the actual conservation, NUS architectural historian Lai Chee Kien thinks the most serendipitous part of the house's history was its acquisition by the railway board around 1900.

This is because three previous traditional courtyard houses - including one at Boat Quay and another in Hill Street on the site of the present Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry building - stayed in the hands of the private sector well into the 20th century "and were redeveloped. We might surmise Tan Yeok Nee's house would otherwise have gone down that path of redevelopment", he says.

Since being gazetted as a national monument in 1974, only minimal changes can be made to the building and these must satisfy strict Urban Redevelopment Authority guidelines.

While its surrounding neighbourhood has undergone sweeping changes, the house itself holds many indelible memories for Salvation Army old-timers such as Commissioner Lim and his wife.

Mrs Lim, 76, recalls her first experience of the house in the tense days ahead of the Japanese invasion of Singapore in February 1942. Her father, who had gone back to China, had left her and her younger sister in a Salvation Army children's home at Pasir Panjang. All the children there were evacuated to the Clemenceau Avenue headquarters as the Japanese troops marched across the Causeway from Johor.

Then aged six, she recalls "being extremely thirsty and dirty" because the Japanese had cut off the water supply. "I remember the delight of being given a bottle of F&N soft drink and drinking something sweet and fizzy," she says.

Over a decade later, she met her future husband while attending youth meetings at The Salvation Army headquarters. They were trained as full-time officers there in 1954, and four years later, got married in the building's main hall, then used as a church. He was 25 and she, 21.

The couple were then posted to Malaysia for 10 years before returning to the Clemenceau Avenue headquarters in 1970 as officers and pastors. Together with their three children - Gladys, then 10, Stephen, eight, and Dora, seven months - they lived in the staff quarters behind the church. Their old home, which had a small sitting room and three bedrooms, is now the lecture hall of the business school.

Commissioner Lim, who became The Salvation Army's General Secretary for Singapore and Malaysia in the mid-1970s, recalls "a constant stream of people coming to the house to ask for help, whether it was donations, counselling or wanting to put their children in our homes".

He remembers, in particular, "receiving a phone call one night from a man who was depressed. He turned out to be a comedian at the Cockpit Hotel and I spent the whole night counselling him".

The Lims left the house for a posting to Hong Kong in 1983 and are now retired. But one legacy of Salvation Army old-timers like them lingers on in the building. Two pointed arch windows in the main hall - similar to those found in churches and constructed during the time when the hall was used for worship services - have been retained, amid the traditional Chinese architecture.

Today, despite the frenzied Orchard Road traffic outside, Chicago Booth students say the house feels like a world unto itself, thanks to its inward-facing courtyard layout.

Ms Noeleen Goh, 33, a real estate professional who is pursuing an Executive Master of Business Administration degree at the school, says her favourite space is the open courtyard in front of the lecture hall. "After hours of lectures in the air-conditioned auditorium, it is fantastic to be able to come out here to hear birds chirping and enjoy the tropical warmth under the shady trees. It's an oasis in the middle of the city," she says.

Martin Koh | 86666 944 | R020968Z
Sherry Tang | 9844 4400 | R020241C
Senior Sales Director
DTZ Debenham Tie Leung (SEA) Pte Ltd (L3006301G)

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