Emerald Hill walk: Of colonialism and a darker side of Sir Stamford Raffles

Emerald Hill walk: Of colonialism and a darker side of Sir Stamford Raffles

Ahead of next year's bicentennial commemorations, the popular OH! Open House art event in March offers an alternative view of Singapore’s past – and a statue of Raffles being grilled

Open House Emerald Hill (artists)
The artists at the 2018 OH! Open House art walk, which takes visitors to Emerald Hill as it explores Orchard Road's colonial past. (Photo: OH! Open House)

SINGAPORE: Next month, the annual art walk OH! Open House heads for the Emerald Hill neighbourhood. And you can catch the sight of Sir Stamford Raffles being... grilled like kueh kapit?

Now on its eighth edition, the popular event – known for presenting artworks inside the homes of residents – will run from March 3 to 25. This year, works by 22 artists will be scattered throughout three different mini-tours as well an exhibition at nearby Orchard Plaza.

One of these artworks will be Singaporean artist Jimmy Ong's sculpture of Raffles. As part of a performance, it will be transformed into a charcoal grill, on which performers wearing sarongs will be grilling kueh kapit or love letter biscuits.

Open Love Letters by Jimmy Ong featured a Stamford Raffles sculpture, seen here being fabricated.
Open Love Letters, another Jimmy Ong artwork featuring a Sir Stamford Raffles sculpture, seen here being fabricated, involved transforming it into a charcoal grill. (Photo: Jimmy Ong)  

Curious and peckish audiences are then invited to munch on these delights with relish – as a ritualistic act of vengeance that touches on a contentious but lesser-known side of the founder of modern Singapore.


Before stumbling upon Singapore in 1819, Raffles was the man behind a brief British rule of Java, which resulted in a violent assault on Yogyakarta in 1812.

While he may have a more benign image here, that isn’t necessarily the case in Indonesia, said Ong.

“I was surprised to find a different reputation of Raffles in Java three years ago. This will be a performance about him in Java and not him in Singapore,” he said.

Open House Emerald Hill (Anthony Chin)
Inside one of the houses at Emerald Hill is Anthony Chin's huge sculpture of the foot of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, which is covered in nutmeg oil. (Photo: OH! Open House)

Ong, who now spends most of his time in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, added:  "I’m offering an alternative viewpoint and perhaps we may recognise a hunger within us not told in Singapore colonial history.”


Ong’s work is just one of many that will offer alternative views to Raffles and Singapore’s colonial past. OH! Open House co-founder and artistic director Alan Oei hopes this year's event will kick-start the conversation ahead of next year’s bicentennial celebrations.

“Other countries pull down the statues and buildings of their former colonial masters; we put up new ones. Colonialism isn’t just a footnote to our history – it’s a set of ideas, attitudes, and institutions that still haunts us today," he said.

Open House Emerald Hill (Kayleigh Goh)
Kayleigh Goh will be presenting a fake real estate shop, featuring paintings of facades of Peranakan shophouses. (Photo: OH! Open House)

But Oei added that colonialism wasn’t just about statues and people. The humble nutmeg played a huge role in Singapore, too, and one of the mini-tours looks at the history of Emerald Hill and Orchard Road during a time when Singapore’s colonisers went nuts over it.

“What were the Dutch and British and the Portuguese doing (in the region) in the first place? It was about spices. From initial trade efforts, it became about territorial conquest that transforms large tracts of land into cash crop plantations – and nutmeg was the first and ultimate cash crop,” said Oei.

Open House Emerald Hill (Zen Teh)
Zen Teh's stylised zen garden installation at Orchard Plaza reimagines the Orchard Road area's topography. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

Originating in the Banda Islands, these were first sent to Singapore by Raffles in 1819. By the 1830s, the so-called nutmeg mania kicked off. At its peak in 1848, there were 55,925 nutmeg trees in Singapore. Many of these plantations were along Orchard Road.


“Nutmeg mania gave shape to Orchard Road, but we don’t typically associate colonialism to Orchard Road. All the estates along Orchard Road – Oxley, Cuppage, Emerald – were named by or after their plantation owners. If you see these strange sculptures in Orchard Ion, and Orchard Central, now you know it’s because of nutmeg mania,” said Oei.

Open House Emerald Hill (Emerald Hill)
Singapore's nutmeg mania gave shape to Orchard Road, with estates including Emerald Hill either named by or after nutmeg plantation owners. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

By the early 1860s, a disease caused by the local beetle, which had been slowly spreading for a decade, had wiped out every single nutmeg plantation.

Only then came the crops people now associate with Singapore and Malaya, like rubber and pineapple, said Oei.

Citing how the rubber industry was largely tied to the Botanic Gardens, he added: “Just thinking about botanical networks from Kew Gardens (London) to Calcutta to Singapore, you really see how science and botany aids colonial exploitation and expropriation. In that way, I feel like botany really opens up conversations about colonialism.”

For more details on OH! Emerald Hill, visit the website here.

Source: CNA/mm