I have a thing for old run down buildings with scraggly facades and chipped paint that have been taken hostage by weeds, arm-twised by thick veiny roots and caked in years of dust and neglect. The cloudy mist of ‘what must have been’ hanging about them is what makes them irresistible.
Perhaps ‘nostalgia’ is what I am really attracted to. But why wouldn’t I be? Globalisation is making our cities across the world increasingly homogenous; multistoried office buildings – lush condominiums – swanky shopping malls – fast food chains and boutique cafes is like a trite formula that’s being slapped across every landscape that’s on the road to modernity.
Knowing about the past is the only way to read the prologue of this story that we are living today, to better understand its character, its provenance so we can connect with it, be aware and be empathetic.
Therefore when opportunity presents itself, I don’t miss out on exploring anything that has the word ‘heritage’ on its radar, which Singapore has plenty but one needs to be alert coz the glitz of the present kind of obliterates the grime of the past. Just as the majestic Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in Singapore’s civic district, which I knew nothing about until it was opened to the public for two days offering a sneek peak after four years of restoration and refurbishment.
If that isn’t motivation enough to visit then how does free guided tours of this 152 year old grand dame sound? I registered myself for the 2:30 pm tour pronto. We were given tiny blue stickers with the timing inked on it, for identification. You know you have a great deal, when your tourguide turns out to be better than the one money could buy! She was a storyteller all right. Standing in the middle of the sunlit atrium, right below the clock tower, her painted fingernails pointed at the two walls on either side of us. ‘See the difference in architecture?” We did. The wall on the left had plain looking pre-cast concrete panels. The wall on the right was ornate, decorative and much more pleasing to the eye. If one was a plain unembellished uniform, the other was a flowing victorian ball gown.
‘Well, these walls belong to two different buildings, built during different periods, and later linked together with the clock tower above’. There was a prolonged ‘ohhhhh’ in the crowd at the evident revelation which wasn’t so evident in the beginning. The concrete panels on the left belong to the Town Hall or Victoria Theatre as it was renamed later and was built in 1862. Victoria Memorial Hall, built in 1905, on the right display an architectural style called ‘Victorian Rivivalism’.
‘Notice the floral patterns, Italianate windows, Baroque volutes and rusticated columns’, she said, while stammering on r-u-s-t-i-c-a-t-e-d. Amid the floral festoons on the wall, she pointed out the letters V, R and I, representing Victoria Regina Imperatrix. While the town hall was built to carry out administrative duties and entertainment activities ( it had meeting rooms and offices on the second floor and a theatre on the ground floor), Victoria Memorial Hall was built ‘To commemorate the Long and Glorious reign of Her Late Majesty Victoria’ (as written on the foundation plaque) after her passing in 1901. Interestingly, though the two buildings were built 40 years apart, their facades were unified in such a way that it’s impossible to detect any difference from outside.
With this bit of orientation, we were led outside to admire the facade. ‘It was built in the Neo-Palladian style (plain exteriors based on rules of proportion contrasted with righly decorated interiors), as are many colonial buildings in Singapore.’ says our guide. ‘ Look at the columns – if they have scrolls they are Ionic, if they have leaves, they are Corinthian, if they are plain, they are Doric’, she offered. Once again the letters V R I make an appearance on the facade of the Memorial Hall. We squinted our eyes to block the sun when she pointed towards the pediment which used to have a bass relief of the British Coat of Arms, but was later replaced in 1959 with the Singapore coat of arms.
Someone asked if the clock affixed to the clock tower still works. ‘Doesn’t it?’ countered our guide with a poker face. We collectively turned our gaze to the 54-meter clock tower with a copper dome and a crown on top (the crown was removed earlier and now restored back) from 1906. It was completed an year after the Victoria Memorial Hall was erected. ‘Does anybody know why?” No one volunteered. Or maybe somebody did mutter something about a ‘delay’, which our guide picked up at once and said ‘Yes, due to the delay in donation of the clock itself by Straits Trading Company(incorporated in 1887 as a tin smelting company). The company is still in operation, you know. It is right behind those tall multistoried buildings’, she said, pointing north-east of the Raffles statue. The clock chimed in agreement. “There you go! Guess, it works!” she said gleefully before turning around to face Raffles again, or rather his back.
We turned around with her. ‘Now this is black Raffles…’ she said pointing to the bronze statue of Singapore’s founder, standing on that column since 1919 (in celebration of the 100th birth anniversary of Singapore, the statue was relocated here from Padang), sombre, arms folded, balancing his weight on one leg and the other casually put forth. ‘..Who can say, where is the white Raffles?’ We’ve all seen the white Raffles by the Singapore river, erected at his landing site. ‘Okay that was easy. Now, look at his foot. What is Raffles standing on?’ Raffles right foot was indeed resting on a parchment. After a rehersed moment of silence meant to heighten the suspense, the answer – ‘Map of British Malaya’ was revealed.
We were then led inside to wander the halls of the Memorial Hall, briefly stopping in front of two bronze plaques (one dedicated to the memory of those killed during the mutiny in Singapore in Feb 1915 and the other the foundation stone laid by Sir Frank Athelstan Swettenham, Governor of Straits Settlement on 9th August 1902), and a bust of Cecil Clementi, a popular governor of Singapore. ‘ This man is very important in Singapore’s history. He was effective in quelling the Chinese Secret societies in Singapore’. (During the colonial rule, Chinese Secret Socities were considered a threat to the law and order of Singapore; they were associated with violence, extortion and vice).
Leaving Clementi, we climb up a flight of marble stairs to find an interesting fixture – a spiral staircase leading to the concert hall. ‘Can anybody tell me what the architect designed it to resemble?’ A raised hand said – ‘Organ pipe’ . Though she was given credit for imagination, the correct answer was – a shimmering white-silver chandelier. We were advised to look at it from outside after dark to corroborate this fact.
‘During second world war, the Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall escaped destruction’ continued our guide. It was used as a hospital and housed survivors of Japanese airraids. Later during the Japanese Occupation it became a cultural center for the Japanese and many shows were performed here. ‘Did you know in 1947, this place held a mass trial of Japanese prisoners in public?’ Few nodded. ‘How do you expect the public to react during such trials? she asked, looking at each one us in the eye. ‘Cry for blood’ said a middle aged gentleman in yellow hat getting a bit worked up. His wife agreed.
‘Well, on the contrary, the spectators were very well behaved.’ our guide answered with a calming smile.
Much later while browsing through the information kiosks, I read this vivid first hand account of the trial narrated by a former teacher of Anglo-Chinese Continuation School named Chan Kwee Sung. He says, “A mass trial was held in public at the Victoria Memorial Hall. It was…very well attended every day – The Japanese prisoners were made to sit facing the spectators on a platform on the dias, where the tribunal was. All the witnesses took stand; they gave the testimony in their own dialect. There were interpretations, and there were microphones all around the hall..One would have expected cursing, booing and jeering but there was none of that. (The) spectators (were) quite well-behaved, even when the prisoners were conducted in and out of the hall.”
Back on the tour, pop quiz wasn’t over. ‘A very important political event took place in this building. Any idea what it might be?’ Almost everyone knew that the People’s Action Party (PAP) held its inaugural meeting here in 1954. The information kiosk had a black and white photograph of a young Lee Kuan Yew addressing the meeting.
$158 million and four years of renovation and refurbishment has brought old Vic up to speed with contemporary standards. New spaces have been added such as changing rooms, loading bay; the central atrium has been openend up. ‘The Concert Hall’s balcony has been made smaller and higher so that the acoustics won’t be compromised for the people sitting below’ said our guide. ‘But all this meant sacrificing the seating capacity. From around 900 to 600 seats (883 to 673 to be exact) now..”
Someone asked if the tour would take us inside the concert halls. ‘Unfortunately not! There are shows going on today, for free. Do take out time to experience one. The stage has curved acrylic panels hung by cables from above to diffuse and reflect the sound”. The lady who asked the question was still bummed – ‘I thought exporing the interiors of the concert hall was part of this tour’. But our guide went on spewing out more information – “…the Grand Klais pipe organ has be beautifully restored by its original German manufacturer. The original St. Clair organ from 1931 was replaced by the fully mechanical Klais organ in 1984..”.
Ducking the crowd spilling out of the concert halls ( yes! free shows), we walked over to the Victoria Theatre side to admire another ingenious creation of the architect – a rehearsal room for musicians that looks like a hanging rhubik cube made up of chocolate bars. ‘Who can say what these are?’ The hint was ‘something recycled’. But even that didn’t work because – 3cm thick timber seat backings from the 1950s theatre chairs – would’ve been pretty hard to guess.
Besides its role as a performing arts center, Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall functioned as a community space, where important events such as weddings and exhibitions took place. ‘My memory of this place is from the time when I participated in a Malay dance sequence here’, said our guide reminiscing at the end of our tour. ‘Do any of you have memories of this place? We are looking for memories.’
There was indeed an irememberVictoria collection booth in the Victoria Concert Hall, behind the tour registration desk, where you could drop your ‘Victoria story’ of first dates, backstage jitters, mass weddings from the 1950s into the collective pool of memories associated with this grand dame of Singapore. Millions of dollars may have given Old Vic a facelift, but its the memories that’ll bring her to life. Guess, I am not the only one attracted to nostalgia.