SINGAPORE: Given its plain and rather uninspiring-looking facade, few among the busy CBD crowd would give this building behind Maxwell Food Centre a second glance.
But the edifice on Ang Siang Hill has nearly a century’s worth of hidden history. “Nothing less than sensational”, is how one architectural historian describes what was possibly the earliest Modernist building in Singapore.
It was a medical supply storehouse, a dispensary, but first of all a hospital – the St Andrew’s Mission Hospital for Women and Children – which from 1922 brought much-needed healthcare to the poor in Chinatown who had no access to proper medical care.
The Singapore Land Authority (SLA), which manages this three-storey property, recently gave the public a rare chance to explore this site on a #SLASecretSpaces guided tour with heritage blogger Mr Jerome Lim.
Here are eight things you never knew about this mysterious building.
1. IT HAS THE OLDEST ELECTRIC LIFT IN SINGAPORE
At 90 years old, the building’s electric lift – with its collapsible iron gates and wooden panels – is believed to be the oldest such in Singapore.
And there’s a pretty poignant story behind it.
The hospital used to treat children with tuberculosis of the spine or other bones, and for years, the poor nurses had to painstakingly carry these patients up the stairs from the ground floor to the sunlit rooftop.
“These children, because of the nature of the disease, couldn’t very well make their own way to the roof,” said Mr Lim. “The only thing they (the nurses) could do to treat the disease was to bring them up to the roof for fresh air and sunshine - that apparently eased the pain.”
In 1929, enough donations were finally collected to purchase and install the lift, which was built by British company Smith, Major and Stevens, an elevator manufacturer that existed from 1770 until 1930.
The lift was still in working order up till March last year.
WATCH: The forgotten architectural gem (Dur 5:12)
2. IT WAS POPULAR WITH THIEVES
After World War Two – during which it was damaged by a bomb but still continued, under the Japanese, to see patients – the hospital was turned into a government medical supply storehouse.
It was a frequent target of thieves because of its medical inventory.
Mr Patrick Ho who lived there with his family from the 1940s to the 1960s, recounted how they used to employ a policeman to guard the place.
But that didn’t deter some thieves who, on a couple of occasions, managed to tie up the watchman.
“The people from the market must have heard him shouting for help, and they untied him. Twice this happened, to two policemen,” he said.
I heard from people that the thieves were trying to take away some drugs, like morphine.
Mr Ho’s father was managing the medical storehouse and his family lived in quarters erected on the rooftop, It had bedrooms, toilets, a kitchen and a dining area.
The storehouse later saw a change of use and became the Maxwell Road Outpatient Dispensary from 1967 to 1998, distributing medicine to those who lived around the area.
3. IT IS ONE OF THE EARLIEST MODERNIST BUILDINGS IN SINGAPORE
While its architecture may not be distinctive amid today’s towering skyscrapers, this building probably stood out in 1920s Singapore, said architectural historian Mr Julian Davison.
“Suddenly, right in the middle of Chinatown, you get this white severe Cube, It must have been sensational,” he said. “And it was (not only) a landmark building in terms of architecture but also as a kind of symbol of a new age in Singapore: The advent of the modern world.”
This building has, after all, an impressive pedigree – it was designed by Swan & Maclaren, Singapore’s oldest architectural firm better known for building the iconic Raffles Hotel, St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Victoria Memorial Hall.
When this building was being constructed, it was surrounded by modern buildings with cladding, metal frames and windows.
“And then we get this building – sheer facades and no ornaments,” said Mr Davison.
“It's quite astonishing that this building should be found in Singapore, which wasn't known for its advanced architecture in those days.”
4. IT WAS BUILT TO CATER TO WOMEN WHO SHUNNED MALE DOCTORS
Asian women were once terribly uncomfortable about being treated by male doctors.
To reach out to them, Dr Charlotte Ferguson-Davie, wife of the first Anglican bishop of Singapore, set up several clinics – including this hospital in 1922 – and enlisted female doctors to care for them.
“St Andrew’s Mission Hospital, from the perspective of medical history, played a very important role in Singapore, bringing healthcare to the poor who otherwise couldn't get access to it,” said Mr Lim.
The 60-bed hospital cost S$111,000 to complete. It operated on voluntary donations and grants as the government’s annual grant of S$1,800 was insufficient to meet its expenditure.
5. SOME OPERATIONS WERE CONDUCTED HERE WITHOUT ANAESTHETICS
Dr Ho Boon Liat, who was a director of the hospital, offered a glimpse of life in this institution during the Japanese Occupation in his book, the ‘Syonan Interlude’.
“The amazing thing (was that) procedures – forceps, abnormal presentations, retained placentas – were performed without anesthesia. It sounds barbaric now, but we had finished our stockpile of anesthetics before the end of the very first year of the (Japanese) Occupation,” he recounted.
Due to the hospital’s location near Chinatown’s brothels, the hospital also treated venereal diseases and “quarrels were very frequent among the women of this locality due to trade rivalry,” said Dr Ho.
6. THE ROOFTOP OFFERED A VIEW OF DEATH HOUSES
The Street of Death – or the infamous Sago Lane with its funeral parlours and death houses – was just a street away, and former resident Mr Ho recalled seeing and hearing funeral processions two to three times a week.
There was also that constant smell of opium wafting through his house right on cue every evening at around 8pm, from his neighbours who were opium smokers.
“(During) that time, I think most Chinese people smoked opium,” he added. “I can recognise how opium smell like... it wasn’t an unpleasant smell, but very strong.”
7. IT WAS TANG’S CORPORATE OFFICE
This building was, most recently, the corporate office of Singapore’s oldest department store Tangs.
C K Tang Limited occupied the premises from 2012 to 2017 while various spaces at 310 Orchard Road (TANGS at Tang Plaza) were undergoing refurbishments, said a CK Tang spokesman.
8. IT HAS NO CONSERVATION STATUS
The building has been marked for residential and commercial use, but it doesn’t have conservation status.
Mr Lim feels with its “many layers of history”, in order to document this “some thought should be spared on conserving the building”.
“I think it’s quite important. The St Andrew’s Medical Mission played a very important role, they built this building and…we find that this building has had many uses.”
For now, the SLA is working with other government agencies to put the property up for either adaptive reuse or longer term plans.