Situated to the north of the Singapore River, the colonial core is bordered to the northeast by Rochor Road and Rochor Canal Road, to the northwest by Selegie Road and Canning Hill, and to the southeast by the sea. The area is small enough to walk around - just. To walk from the Singapore Art Museum in the far northwest corner of this area to the mouth of the Singapore River shouldn't take more than 30 minutes. You may want to take a cab to get over to Fort Canning Park if it is a particularly hot and humid day.
The Padang (playing field in Malay), the site of most big sporting and other events in Singapore - including the National Day parades - is at the centre of the colonial area. Many of the great events in Singapore's short history have been played out within sight or sound of the Padang. It was close to here that Stamford Raffles first set foot on the island on the morning of 28 January 1819, where the Japanese surrendered to Lord Louis Mountbatten on 12 September 1945, and where Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of the city state, declared the country independent in 1959.
The Padang originally fronted on to the sea, but due to land reclamation now stands 1 km inland. After the founding of Singapore in 1819, English and Indian troops were quartered here and the area was known as The Plain. The name was only later changed to Padang. In 1942, when Singapore fell to the invading
Japanese, all the European population of the colony were massed on the Padang before the troops were marched away to prisoner-of-war camps, some to camps in Malaya and Siam (where they helped to build the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai), others to Changi . The
, at the end of the Padang, was the focus of British activity. A sports pavilion was first constructed in 1850 and a larger Victorian clubhouse was built in 1884 with two levels, the upper level being the ladies' viewing gallery. The
Singapore Recreation Club
(the SRC) building, at the northern end of the Padang, has been built on the site of a former club built in 1883 by the Eurasian community, who were excluded from the Cricket Club. The building is a modern, green-glass affair with polished brown columns: a nouveau antidote to the venerable Cricket Club at the other end of the Padang. In 1963 the club lifted its membership restrictions and fewer than a fifth are now Eurasian.
Flanking the Padang are the houses of justice and government: the domed
(formerly the Hotel de l'Europe) and the City Hall. The neo-classical
was built with Indian convict labour for a trifling S$2m and was finished in 1929. The Japanese surrendered here to Lord Louis Mountbatten and on the same spot, Lee Kuan Yew declared Singapore's independence. Today it contains law courts - the overflow from the Supreme Court next door.
Esplanade and the river
On the seaward side of the Padang from the City Hall is
. Along the base the following words are inscribed: “This fountain is erected by the municipal commissioners in commemoration of Mr Tan Kim Seng's donation towards the cost of the Singapore Water Works”. This tells only part of the story for the fountain is a remnant of pristine Singapore's filthy past. Mr Tan, a prosperous Straits Chinese, made a gift of S$13,000 in 1857 to finance the island's first municipal water works on the condition that the water be available to all, free of charge. At the time it was just beginning to be recognized that Singapore's appallingly high mortality rate - which was higher than the island's birth rate (only immigration kept the population growing) - was linked to dirty water. Unfortunately, the terms of Mr Tan's gift were not adhered to; indeed, some people suggest that money was, so to speak, siphoned off for some other nefarious purpose. Certainly, it was not for another 60 years that mortality rates declined significantly, especially among Singapore's Chinese, Indian and Malay communities. Perhaps the city fathers erected this fountain when their guilt got the better of them.
Stretching right along the seafront, looking like a pair of giant metal durians, is
Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay,
, the centre of Singapore's performing arts scene, completed in 2002. Within the durians there's a 1800-seater concert hall, a 2000-seat theatre, and various outdoor performing spaces and, of course, a shopping plaza. After a shaky start the theatres are increasingly attracting world-class performances, with luminaries such Ian McKellen as King Lear for the RSC in 2007, plus epic musicals and resurgent, newly hip local theatre adding to the diverse line-up. The annual Mosaic Music Festival is held here.
Located a 20-minute walk from the Esplanade along Raffles Avenue is one of Singapore's newer attractions, the Singapore Flyer, www.singaporeflyer.com.sg. This rotating wheel, similiar to the London Eye, stands at 165 m above sea level and is currently the largest Ferris wheel on Earth. The ride offers outstanding views over the city, the busy shipping lanes and the islands of Indonesia's Riau province beyond. Rides last 30 minutes and the capsules are filled with mellow beats. The Flyer has had many problems since opening with financial troubles (locals claim it is too expensive) and five breakdowns including the dramatic incident in 2008 when a short circuit caused the wheel to stop, trapping 173 passengers for six hours.
Between High Street and Singapore River there are a number of architectural legacies of the colonial period: Old Parliament House, the Victoria Theatre, and Empress Place. It was in this area that the Temenggongs, the former Malay rulers of Singapore, built their kampong; the royal family was later persuaded to move out to Telok Blangah. The
was originally built as the Town Hall in 1856, but was later adapted by Swan and Maclaren to celebrate Queen Victoria's jubilee, integrating a new hall (the Memorial Hall) and linking the two with a central clocktower. During the Japanese Occupation the clock, like those in other occupied countries, was set to Tokyo time. The buildings are still venues for Singapore's multi-cultural dance, drama and musical extravaganzas. The Victoria Concert Hall (the right-hand section of the building) is the home base of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
In front of the theatre is the original
bronze statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles
, sculpted in bronze by Thomas Woolner in 1887. There is a story that the statue was saved from destruction at the hands of the invading Japanese by a cunning curator, who hid it away. It seems, however, that the truth is more banal: the colonnade formerly surrounding the statue was destroyed during the fall of Singapore and the statue was removed to the National Museum for the duration of the Occupation. When Lee Kuan Yew first came to power in 1965, his Dutch economic adviser Dr Albert Winsemius told him to get rid of the Communists but to “let Raffles stand where he is today. Say publicly that you accept the heavy ties with the West because you will need them in your economic programme”.
In 2003 the former
, built in 1827 and the oldest government building in Singapore, was converted into
, an arts and heritage venue hosting film, drama, music and literary events and art exhibitions. Designed by George Coleman, it was originally intended as a residence for the wealthy Javanese merchant John Maxwell, who was appointed by Raffles as one of Singapore's first three magistrates. He never lived here, because of a dispute over the legal rights to the land, and he later leased it out to the government as a Court House. With the construction of a Supreme Court in St Andrews Road in 1939, the building stood empty for a decade, before becoming the Assembly Rooms in the 1950s and later Parliament House. Just to the north of Parliament House is a small bronze statue of an
- a gift from Siam's (Thailand's) King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who visited Singapore in 1871. (At the time, King Chulalongkorn was itching to get to Europe, but he had to make do with Singapore and one or two other colonial possessions in Asia. He had to wait a few years before he got to the real centre of
- civilization.) The Arts House has a shop, café and Thai, Vietnamese and pizza restaurants.
Old Parliament House became too small to accommodate the expanding body of MPs and a new S$80 million
, was opened in 1999 next to the old building. Parliamentary debate in Singapore is modelled on the Westminster system and, as in the Old Parliament, there is a Strangers' Gallery where the public - and visitors - can witness Singapore's version of democracy in action. In an attempt to educate Singapore's youth about their parliamentary system, there is a soundproofed gallery where a commentary is provided, a Moot Parliament where schoolchildren can sharpen their debating skills and a History Corner with interactive computer programmes.
, on the river and near to the Old Parliament, was one of Singapore's first conservation projects. Built as the East India Company courthouse in 1865 and named after Queen Victoria, Empress of the Empire, it later housed the legislative assembly and then became, in turn, part of the immigration department, the offices of other assorted government agencies, and a museum.
This thoroughly confused building underwent yet another reincarnation when it reopened in 2003 as the second wing of the
Asian Civilisations Museum
, www.acm.org.sg. As its name suggests, the focus of the museum is Asian culture and civilization - 5000 years of it. The 11 galleries explore religion, art, architecture, textiles, writing and ceramics from China to West Asia. It's a superb museum, with interactive features and some superb displays of artefacts from around Asia. This is a good place to get an overall view of Singapore and its history within the regional framework. Guided tours are available in many languages.
In front of Empress Place stands the
, an obelisk erected in honour of Lord James Dalhousie, governor-general of India, who visited Singapore for three days in 1850. He is credited on the plaque as having emphatically recognized the wisdom of liberating commerce from all restraints.
The iconic Raffles Hotel - with its 875 designer-uniformed staff (a ratio of two staff to every guest) and 104 suites (each fitted with Persian carpets), eight restaurants (and a Culinary Academy), five bars, playhouse and custom-built, leather-upholstered cabs - is the jewel in the crown of Singapore's tourist industry. Founded by four Armenian brothers, the Sarkies, the hotel has seen it all, barely surviving the Great Depression of the 1930s, and was the venue for a mass suicide of over 300 Japanese soldiers at the end of the Second World War. It was used as a transit camp for prisoners of war, and has played host to notables such as Queen Elizabeth II, Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Noel Coward. The hotel was fully renovated in the late 80s and is now a fixture on the tourist trail, with visitors indulging in Singapore Slings in the Long Bar. In true Singapore style, it has a 5000 sq m shopping arcade and there's even a museum of Rafflesian memorabilia on the third floor. The museum has a beautiful collection of early guidebooks, tickets, party photos, evening gowns and signed pictures of notable guests. A visit is highly recommended. Next to the museum is the
, named after the old Jubilee Theatre that was demolished to make way for the Raffles extension .
Raffles Hotel's original (but restored) billiard table today stands in the Billiard Room. It is claimed that the last tiger ever shot in Singapore met its end under the billiard table here in 1902, having escaped from a show. Palm Court is also still there and as is the Tiffin Room, which unsurprisingly serves tiffin (a snack or lunch). Teams of restoration consultants undertook painstaking research into the original colours of paint, ornate plasterwork and fittings. A replica of the cast-iron portico, known as cad's alley, was built to the original 19th-century specifications of a Glasgow foundry.
There has been a vigorous debate over whether or not in the process of its lavish restoration Raffles has lost some of its atmosphere and appeal. There is no doubt that it has been done well; architecturally it can hardly be faulted and the lawns and courtyards are lush with foliage. It's also clearly an immensely comfortable and well-run hotel, but critics say they've tried a little too hard.
Cathedrals and churches
South of Raffles lies
, designed by Colonel Ronald MacPherson and built in the 1850s by Indian (Tamil) convict labourers in early neo-gothic style. Its interior walls are coated with a plaster called Madras chunam, a decorative innovation devised by the Indian labourers to conceal the deficiencies of the building materials. The recipe for Madras chunam was egg white, egg shell, lime and a coarse sugar (called jaggery), mixed with coconut husks and water into a paste. Once the paste had hardened, it was polished and then moulded to give many buildings their ornate façades. Note the window commemorating Raffles as the founder of modern Singapore. The cathedral is often packed; 7% of Singapore's population over 15 are Christian. There's a visitor centre with pictures and artefacts and there are daily guided tours.
Built in 1835 (the spire was added in 1850), the
Armenian Church of St Gregory
(the first monk of the Armenian church), on Hill Street, is the island's oldest church and was designed by Irish architect George Coleman. This diminutive church seats 50 people at a squeeze. The construction of the church was largely funded by Singapore's small Armenian community, although a number of non-Christian Asians also contributed. Agnes Joaquim is buried here - she discovered what is now the national flower of Singapore, the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid. On the other side of the road from the church is a strange pagoda-roofed block - the
Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry
building. This rather unhappy edifice was erected in 1964. Two stone lions imported from mainland China guard the entrance and the murals on either side of the gate are copies of similar murals in Beijing.
One of George Coleman's pupils, Denis McSwiney, designed the
Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Good Shepherd
, on the junction of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road. It was used as an emergency hospital during the Second World War. The building has been gazetted as a national monument.
Armenian Street to Coleman Street
Convent of Holy Infant Jesus
, opposite the Cathedral on Victoria Street, is a complex consisting of the convent, chapel and
(designed by George Coleman). It has been redeveloped by a French architect into a sophisticated courtyard of handicraft shops, as well as bars and restaurants. Originally, the convent was run by four French Catholic nuns, opening its doors to 14 fee-paying pupils, nine boarders and 16 orphans in 1854. As well as being an orphanage and school for older girls, the convent became a home for abandoned babies, who were often left at the gates of the convent at the point of death. The gothic-style church, designed by French Jesuit priest Father Beurel, was added at the turn of the 20th century. The church is now used for concerts and wedding ceremonies (and photo opportunities). Even the stained glass was painstakingly dismantled and renovated to a high standard.
On Armenian Street, close to Stamford Road, is a restored school. Tao Nan School was built in 1910 and became one of the first Chinese schools in Singapore. It has been taken over by the Singapore Museums Department and in 1997 opened as the first branch of the Asian Civilisations Museum. The
, www.peranakanmuseum.sg, has exhibits describing Peranakan life in the Straits Chinese-dominated cities of Singapore, Melaka and Penang. The Perenakans or Straits Chinese have been one of the region's most important cultures, coming about through centuries of intermarriage between Malays and Chinese. The clothes, food and arts are a wonderful fusion of colours and tastes with gorgeous ceramics, tasty fusion-style cooking and bright fashion.
Almost next door to the museum is
www.substation.org, an offbeat cinema that also mounts small art exhibitions.
Singapore Art Museum
Singapore Philatelic Museum
, is a small but extremely well-run museum and is not just of interest to philatophiles. It shows the history of Singapore's - and, more widely, the world's - postal system. Children (or adults for that matter) can design their own stamps and print them out, use touch-screen computers to test their knowledge of philately, tackle puzzles or just admire the collection of stamps and envelopes. There is a good 'Room of Rarities' gallery, which uses stamps to recount aspects of Singapore's history.
Built in 1867, the former Catholic boys' school, St Joseph's Institution, opposite the RC Cathedral, is a good example of colonial religious architecture and is now home to the Singapore Art Museum. There are travelling exhibitions every month or so, both modern and classical. The Singapore Art Museum's own collection is modest and, understandably, predominantly features Singaporean and Malaysian artists' work. There are always pieces from the collection on show providing an interesting insight into how Singaporean and Malaysian artists have selectively absorbed Western and Eastern influences.
While St Joseph's was being renovated, a feature wall was discovered behind a row of built-in cupboards. Two supporting columns bear an entablature emblazoned with the words
Santa Joseph Ora Pro Nobis
(Saint Joseph Pray For Us) and it is presumed that the school chapel was located here.
National Museum of Singapore
Bras Basah Road was so-called because wet rice -
in Malay - was dried here on the banks of the Sungai Bras Basah (now Stamford Canal).
Fort Canning Park
A beautiful colonial structure originally built in 1887, the museum sits handsomely at the meeting point of Orchard Road, Bencoolen Street and Fort Canning Park and makes for a fascinating visit. One of Asia's finest museums, this shouldn't be missed. It provides an insight into a city that is a fusion of a fascinating, surprisingly brutal history and state-of- the-art technology and both of these aspects are beautifully encapsulated in this hi-tech renovation. At the Stamford Road entrance beneath the elegant glass dome, visitors are
given an audiovisual guide. In the History Gallery, Singapore's past is covered from its 14th-century beginnings through the colonial years, the Second World War, to Independence and life as commercial superpower. What makes this so effective is its seamless m
ultimedia execution, combining dramatic recreations of events, historical footage, memoirs and interviews with well-presented artefacts. Allow three to four hours to do the museum justice. Upstairs in the Living Galleries are displays of Singapore's 'living' culture, exploring Singapore through its food, photography and fashion. Singaporean and world cinema screenings are also held (some on the lawn outside). Downstairs - and it wouldn't be Singapore without it - are an array of shops and mouthwatering, if pricey, eateries.
Behind the National Museum of Singapore is Fort Canning Park. The British called it Singapore Hill, but its history stretches back centuries earlier. It is known as Bukit Larangan, or Forbidden Hill, by the Malays, as this was the site of the ancient fortress of the Malay kings and reputedly contains the tomb of the last Malay ruler of the kingdom of Singapura, Sultan Iskandar Shah. Archaeological excavations in the area have uncovered remains from the days of the Majapahit Empire. It is thought that the palace was built in the early 14th century and then abandoned in 1396 in the wake of Siamese (Thai) and Majapahit (Javanese) attacks. Furthermore, when Raffles and his companions landed in 1819, it is said that Malay oral history still recalled the former 14th-century palace and its sultans and would not accompany the British up the hill for fear of the spirits. In a letter written to Sir William Marsden at the time of his first landing on Singapore, Raffles mentions the ruins of the Malay fortress. The name Canning Hill was given to this slight geological protuberance in the 1860s in honour of the first Viceroy of India, Viscount George Canning.
Over the last few years Canning Hill has evolved into something a little more ambitious than just a park. The
, opened in 1997, is a museum contained within the bunker where General Percival directed the unsuccessful campaign against the invading Japanese in 1942. Visitors are first shown a 15-minute video recounting the events that led up to the capture of Singapore. They are then led into the Malaya Command headquarters - the Battle Box - where the events of the final historic day, 15 February 1942, are re-enacted. Visitors are given earphones and are then taken from the radio room, to the cipher rooms and on to the command room, before arriving at the bunker where Percival gathered his senior commanders for their final, fateful, meeting. It is very well done with a good commentary, figures and film. The bunker is also air conditioned, a big plus after the hot walk up. During the Second World War, though, it was stiflingly hot - air was inefficiently re-circulated in case of gas attack. There is also a small traditional museum and a souvenir shop.
Above the Battle Box are the
; the Gothic gateway, derelict guardhouse and earthworks are all that remain of a fort which once covered 3 ha. There are now some 40 modern sculptures here. Below the sculpture garden to the south is the renovated
(built 1926), home venue of Theatre Works and the Singapore Dance Theatre. In front of Fort Canning Centre is an old Christian cemetery,
, where the first settlers, including the architect George Coleman, are buried.
The graves of these early settlers have been exhumed. Along with George Coleman, there was a Russian and, unusually, a Chinese - for this was a Christian burial ground - and it may indicate an early convert to Christianity. While Sir Stamford Raffles may have lived here, he did not die here. He fell out with the East India Company, and died of a presumed brain tumour the day before his 45th birthday. His funeral in North London went unnoticed by London society and it was only later that he was reburied in Westminster Abbey.
Below Canning Hill, on Clemenceau Avenue, is the Hindu
, also known as the
Sri Thendayuthapani Temple
. The original temple on this site was built in the 19th century by wealthy Chettiar Indians (money lending caste). It has been superseded by a modern version, finished in 1984, and is dedicated to Lord Subramaniam (also known as Lord Muruga). The ceiling has 48 painted glass panels, angled to reflect sunset and sunrise. Its gopuram, the five-tiered entrance, aisles, columns and hall all sport rich sculptures depicting Hindu deities, carved by sculptors trained in Madras. This Hindu temple is the richest in Singapore - some argue, in all of Southeast Asia. Thousands flock here to witness the spectacular Kavadi procession of the Thaipusam festival .
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