The Colonial District Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
North of the old mouth of the Singapore River is what might be termed Singapore’s Colonial District, peppered with venerable reminders of British rule set back from the vast lawn that is the Padang . The area still feels like the centrepiece of downtown, even though modern edifices in the surroundings constantly pull focus from it – notably the towers of Marina Bay Sands and the Financial District, away to the south, and the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay complex to the northeast. Despite the district’s historical associations, there are not that many high-profile sights. Chief among these are the excellent National Museum and Peranakan Museum , both nestling beneath verdant Fort Canning Park – itself worth a look, as are the dignified St Andrew’s Cathedral and the diminutive Armenian Church of St Gregory the Illuminator. By far the district’s most famous building, however, is the grand old Raffles Hotel .
Top image: Esplanade © Burachet/Shutterstock
The Empress Place Building, very close to the mouth of the Singapore River, is a robust Neoclassical structure named for Queen Victoria and completed in 1865. Having long housed government offices, it is now home to the fine Asian Civilisations Museum, tracing the origins and growth of Asia’s many and varied cultures, from Islamic West Asia through South and Southeast Asia to China. A bit of a misfit here, though most apt given the museum’s location, is the excellent Singapore River gallery. It has displays of sampans and other river craft, and a diorama of a timber dwelling for coolies that recalls the grim lodging houses that once featured in London’s docklands, but best of all are fascinating oral history clips featuring people who once worked on and lived by the river. In keeping with the river’s renaissance as a major area for wining and dining, Empress Place also houses several slick restaurants, notably those run by the Indochine chain.
Bras Basah Road – the main thoroughfare between Orchard Road and Marina Centre – supposedly got its name because rice arriving on cargo boats used to be brought here to be dried (beras basah means “wet rice” in Malay). The zone between it and Rochor Road at the edge of Little India has a transitional sort of feel, sitting as it does between the Colonial District and what were intended to be “ethnic” enclaves to the northeast. In recent times city planners have transformed the area into a nexus for the arts, with many distinguished old properties on and around Waterloo Street being turned over to arts organizations, including the Singapore Art Museum. The country’s leading institutes in the field have also been lured here, among them the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) on Bencoolen Street; and the School of the Arts, in a striking new building next to the Cathay cinema.
The Singapore Art Museum has a peerless location in the venerable St Joseph’s Institution, Singapore’s first Catholic school, whose silvery dome rang to the sounds of school bells until 1987. Though extensions have been necessary, many of the original rooms survive, among them the school chapel. There’s also an annexe, 8Q, housing more art in another former Catholic school round the corner at 8 Queen St. The museum focuses on a diverse and challenging range of contemporary art from Singapore and East Asia, and it’s likely that this emphasis will continue even after the National Art Gallery opens, with the latter showcasing regional art of a slightly older vintage.
The elegant suspension struts of Cavenagh Bridge are one of the Colonial District’s irresistible draws. Named after Major General Orfeur Cavenagh, governor of the Straits Settlements from 1859 to 1867, the bridge was constructed in 1869 by Indian convict labourers using imported Glasgow steel. Times change, but not necessarily here, where a police sign maintains: “The use of this bridge is prohibited to any vehicle of which the laden weight exceeds 3cwt and to all cattle and horses.” Cross the footbridge to reach Singapore’s former GPO (now the luxurious Fullerton Hotel), with Boat Quay and Raffles Place MRT just a couple of minutes’ walk away.
The open plot east of Raffles City is home to four 70m-high white columns, nicknamed “the chopsticks” but actually the
Civilian War Memorial
, commemorating those who died during the Japanese occupation. Each column represents one of Singapore’s four main ethnic groups – the Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians – while beneath the structure are remains reinterred from unmarked wartime graves around the island.
feels somewhat overlooked today, though back in 1907 G.M. Reith recommended it as “a strip of green along the sea wall, with a footpath, which affords a cool and pleasant walk in the early morning and afternoon”. Even a few decades ago, it drew flocks of locals to its seafront promenade,
Queen Elizabeth Walk
. Now it’s the fresh water of man-made Marina Bay that’s on view, and the vista is slightly spoilt by the new Esplanade Bridge in the foreground.
When Raffles first caught sight of Singapore, the hill now taken up by
Fort Canning Park
was known locally as Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill). Malay annals tell of the five ancient kings of Singapura who ruled the island from here six hundred years ago, and unearthed artefacts prove it was inhabited as early as the fourteenth century. The last of the kings, Sultan Iskandar Shah, reputedly lies here, and it was out of respect for – and fear of – his spirit that the Malays decreed the hill off-limits. Singapore’s first Resident (colonial administrator), William Farquhar, displayed typical colonial tact by promptly having what the British called Government Hill cleared and erecting a bungalow, Government House, on the summit; the fateful Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 was probably signed here. The building was replaced in 1859 by a fort named after Viscount George Canning, governor-general of India, but only a gateway, guardhouse and adjoining wall remain today.
The dignified white Victorian building up Parliament Lane, somewhat overshadowed by the Victoria Memorial Hall, is the
Old Parliament House
, built as a private dwelling for a rich merchant by Singapore’s pre-eminent colonial architect, the Irishman George Drumgould Coleman. Relieved of its legislative duties, the building is now home to a contemporary arts centre called
The Arts House
and includes a shop stocking literature, DVDs and other works by home-grown talent. The bronze elephant in front of Old Parliament House was a gift to Singapore from King Rama V of Thailand (whose father was the king upon whom
The King and I
was based) after his trip to the island in 1871 – the first foreign visit ever made by a Thai monarch. Just across Parliament Lane from its predecessor is the back of the rather soulless
New Parliament House
, where it is possible to watch parliamentary debates in progress.
(“field” in Malay), earmarked by Raffles as a recreation ground shortly after his arrival, is the very essence of colonial Singapore. Such is its symbolic significance that its borders have never been encroached upon by speculators and it remains much as it was in 1907, when G.M. Reith wrote in his
Handbook to Singapore
: “Cricket, tennis, hockey, football and bowls are played on the plain”. Once the last over of the day had been bowled, the Padang assumed a more social role: the image of Singapore’s European community hastening to the corner once known as Scandal Point to catch up on the latest gossip is pure Somerset Maugham.
Dating from 1910, the beautifully ornamented three-storey building just west of Hill Street was once the Tao Nan School, the first school in Singapore to cater for new arrivals from China’s Fujian province. Today it houses the worthy
. While the museum boasts that the island’s Peranakans are “fully integrated into Singapore’s globalized society”, in reality they are at best keeping a low profile, and in a country where ethnicity is stated on everyone’s ID, “Peranakan” isn’t recognized as a valid category – meaning they are inevitably lumped together with the wider Chinese community. The museum should whet your appetite not only for the Baba House but also the Peranakan heritage of the Katong area.
Singaporean Peranakans are Baba-Nonyas, and the galleries focus on their possessions (theirs was largely a material culture) and customs, in particular the traditional twelve-day wedding. Early on you reach one of the most memorable displays, showing the classic entrance into a Peranakan home, overhung with lanterns and with a pair of pintu pagar – tall swing doors; you’ll see something similar if you visit the Baba House. Elsewhere, look out for artefacts such as the ornate, tiered “pagoda trays” used in the wedding ceremony, furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and beautiful repoussé silverware, including betel-nut sets and “pillow ends”, coaster-like objects which for some reason were used as end-caps for bolsters. It’s also worth attending to the video interviews with members of the community, who speak eloquently about matters such as being a hidden minority, whether or not to “marry out” and the prognosis for the Baba-Nonya identity.
From the sixteenth century onwards, male Chinese immigrants came to settle in the Malay Peninsula, chiefly in Malacca, Penang (both in what is now Malaysia) and Singapore, and often married Malay women. The male offspring of such unions were termed Baba and the females Nonya (or Nyonya), though the community as a whole is also sometimes called Straits Chinese or simply Peranakan, an umbrella term denoting a culture born both of intermarriage and of communities living side by side over generations.
Baba-Nonya society adapted and fused elements from both its parent cultures, and had its own dialect of Malay and unique style. The Babas were often wealthy and were not afraid to flaunt this fact in their lavish townhouses featuring furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and hand-painted tilework. The Nonyas wore Malay-style batik-printed clothes and were accomplished at crafts such as beadwork, with beaded slippers a particular speciality. However, it is their cuisine, marrying Chinese cooking with contrasting flavours from spices, tamarind and coconut milk, that is the culture’s most celebrated legacy.
During the colonial era, many Baba-Nonyas acquired an excellent command of English and so prospered. Subsequently, however, they came under pressure to assimilate into the mainstream Chinese community despite often not speaking much Chinese (the Baba-Nonyas were sometimes labelled “OCBC” after the name of a local bank, though in their case the acronym meant “orang Cina bukan Cina”, Malay for “Chinese [yet] not Chinese”). It is partly as a result of this assimilation that many of their traditions have gone into serious decline.
Dwarfing St Andrew’s Cathedral is
, a huge development occupying a block between Bras Basah and Stamford roads and comprising two hotels – one of which is the 73-storey
Swissôtel The Stamford
– and a shopping mall. The complex was designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei (the man behind the Louvre’s glass pyramid) and required the highly contentious demolition of the venerable Raffles Institution, a school established by Raffles himself and built in 1835 by George Drumgould Coleman. The
holds an annual vertical marathon, in which hardy athletes attempt to run up to the top floor in as short a time as possible: the current record stands at under seven minutes. Lifts transport lesser mortals to admire the view from the sumptuous bars and restaurants on the top floors.
With its lofty halls, restaurants, bars and peaceful gardens, the legendary Raffles Hotel was practically a byword for colonial indulgence, and prompted Somerset Maugham to remark that it “stood for all the fables of the exotic East”. Oddly, though, this most inherently British of hotels started life as a modest seafront bungalow belonging to an Arab trader, Mohamed Alsagoff.
The hotel enjoyed its real heyday during the first three decades of the last century, when it established its reputation for luxury. Opened in 1887, it was the first building in Singapore with electric lights and fans. In 1902, a little piece of Singaporean history was made at the hotel, according to a (probably apocryphal) tale, when the last tiger to be killed onthe island was shot inside the building. Thirteen years later bartender Ngiam TongBoon created another Raffles legend, the Singapore Sling cocktail (still served for theprincely sum of $31). During World War II, the hotel became the officers’ quarters for the Japanese, andafter the Japanese surrender in 1945, it served as a transit camp for liberated Alliedprisoners. Postwar deterioration earned it the aff ectionate but melancholy soubriquet“grand old lady of the East”, and the hotel was little more than a shabby touristdiversion when the government finally declared it a national monument in 1987. A hugely expensive facelift followed and the hotel reopened in 1991.
Fort Canning Park’s southern boundary is defined by River Valley Road, which skirts below the park from Hill Street. At its eastern end is the MICA Building, with shuttered windows in striking bright colours. Formerly the Hill Street Police Station, it is now home to the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, plus the Ministry of Culture – and its central atrium houses several galleries majoring in Asian artworks.
Little more than a creek, in the nineteenth century the Singapore River became the main artery of Singapore’s growing trade, and was clogged with bumboats – traditional cargo boats, the size of houseboats, with eyes painted on their prows as if to see where they were going. The boat pilots ferried coffee, sugar and rice to warehouses called godowns, where coolies loaded and unloaded sacks. In the 1880s the river itself was so busy it was practically possible to walk from one side to the other without getting your feet wet. Of course bridges were built across it as well, mostly endearingly compact and old-fangled, apart from the massive new Esplanade Bridge at the mouth of the river.
Walk beside the river today, all sanitized and packed with trendy restaurants and bars, some occupying the few surviving godowns, and it’s hard to imagine that in the 1970s this was still a working river. It was also filthy, and the river’s current status as one of the leading nightlife centres of Singapore ultimately originates in a massive clean-up campaign launched back then, which saw the river’s commercial traffic moved west to Pasir Panjang within the space of a few years. Several museums have sections exploring the role the river once played and the pros and cons of its transformation, with a particularly good discussion at the Asian Civilisations Museum, which states frankly: “[the project] also washed away … [the river’s] vibrant history as a trade waterway. Its newly cleaned waters now appeared characterless and sterile.” At least today various boat rides offer a view of the riverside restaurants and city skyline.
Despite living and working in a period of imperial arrogance and land-grabbing, Sir Stamford Raffles maintained an unfailing concern for the welfare of the people under his governorship, and a conviction that British colonial expansion was for the general good. He believed Britain to be, as Jan Morris says in her introduction to Maurice Collis’s biography of Raffles, “the chief agent of human progress… the example of fair Government”.
Fittingly for a man who was to spend his life roaming the globe, Thomas Stamford Raffles was born at sea on July 6, 1781 on the Ann, whose master was his father Captain Benjamin Raffles. By his fourteenth birthday, the young Raffles was working as a clerk for the East India Company in London, his schooling curtailed because of his father’s debts. Even at this early age, Raffles’ ambition and self-motivation was evident as he stayed up through the night to study and developed a hunger for knowledge which would later spur him to learn Malay, amass a vast treasure-trove of natural history artefacts and write his two-volume History of Java.
Raffles’ diligence and hard work showed through in 1805, when he was chosen to join a team going out to Penang, then being developed as a British entrepôt. Once in Southeast Asia, he enjoyed a meteoric rise: by 1807 he was named chief secretary to the governor in Penang. Upon meeting Lord Minto, the governor general of the East India Company in India, in 1810, Raffles was appointed secretary to the governor general in Malaya, a promotion quickly followed by the governorship of Java in 1811. Raffles’ rule of Java was liberal and compassionate, his economic, judicial and social reforms transforming an island bowed by Dutch rule.
Post-Waterloo European rebuilding saw the East Indies returned to the Dutch in 1816 – to the chagrin of Raffles. He was transferred to the governorship of Bencoolen in Sumatra, but not before he had returned home for a break. While in England he met his second wife, Sophia Hull (his first, Olivia, had died in 1814), and was knighted. Raffles and Sophia sailed to Bencoolen in early 1818. Once in Sumatra, Raffles found the time to study the region’s flora and fauna as tirelessly as ever, discovering Rafflesia arnoldii – “perhaps the largest and most magnificent flower in the world” – on a field trip. By now, Raffles felt strongly that Britain should establish a base in the Straits of Melaka and in late 1818 he was given leave to pursue this possibility. The following year he duly sailed to the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, where his securing of Singapore was a daring masterstroke of diplomacy.
For a man whose name is inextricably linked with Singapore, Raffles spent a remarkably short time on the island. His last visit was in 1822; by August 1824, he was back in England. Awaiting news of a possible pension award from the East India Company, he spent his time founding the London Zoo. But the new life Raffles had planned never materialized. Days after hearing that a Calcutta bank holding £16,000 of his capital had folded, his pension application was refused; worse still, the Company was demanding £22,000 for overpayment. Three months later, in July 1826, the brain tumour that had caused Raffles headaches for several years took his life. He was buried at Hendon in north London with no memorial stone – the vicar had investments in slave plantations in the West Indies and was unimpressed by Raffles’ friendship with the abolitionist William Wilberforce. Only in 1832 was Raffles commemorated, with a statue in Westminster Abbey.
From the northern edge of the Padang, Stamford Road zigzags its way past the Colonial District’s most important sight, the National Museum, passing three grand surviving examples of colonial commercial architecture: the 1930s Capitol Building, at the corner of North Bridge Road; Stamford House, built in 1904 at the corner of Hill Street; and the red-and-white Vanguard House, completed in 1908 at the corner of Armenian Street. Each has had an illustrious past – the Capitol Building as a theatre and cinema, Stamford House as an annexe to the Raffles Hotel (they were designed by the same architect) and as a major shopping centre, and Vanguard House as the headquarters of the Methodist Publishing House, then much later as home to the flagship store of the MPH bookshop chain. Despite regular maintenance that has kept their ornamented facades in tiptop condition, all now serve much more mundane roles hosting offices and run-of-the-mill shops.
You can’t fail to spot the eye-catching dome, seemingly coated with silvery fish scales, of the National Museum of Singapore. Its forerunner, the Raffles Museum and Library, opened in 1887 and soon acquired a reputation for its natural history collection. In the 1960s, following independence, the place was renamed the National Museum and subsequently altered its focus to local history and culture, an emphasis retained after a recent overhaul that saw the original Neoclassical building gain a hangar-like rear extension larger than itself. That extension houses the mainstay of the new-look museum – the History Gallery – while the old building is home to the Living Galleries, focusing on various aspects of Singapore culture and society. If you have no interest in seeing the History Gallery, note that after it shuts there’s free admission to the rest of the museum.
Gleaming even brighter than the rest is the final building of note close to the Padang,
St Andrew’s Cathedral
, adjoining Coleman Street and North Bridge Road. Using Indian convict labour, the cathedral is the third church to be built on this site and was consecrated by Bishop Cotton of Calcutta on January 25, 1862. Constructed in high-vaulted, and neo-Gothic style, its exterior walls were plastered using Madras
– an unlikely composite of eggs, lime, sugar and shredded coconut husks which shines brightly when smoothed – while the small cross behind the pulpit was crafted from two fourteenth-century nails salvaged from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in England, which was destroyed during World War II. During the Japanese invasion of Singapore, the cathedral became a makeshift hospital, with the vestry serving as an operating theatre and the nave as a ward. Today, closed-circuit TVs have been installed to allow the whole congregation to view proceedings at the altar – a reflection of the East Asian fascination with all things high-tech, since the cathedral’s size hardly warrants it.
On the west side of the Padang, across from the Cricket Club, Singapore’s erstwhile
was built in Neoclassical style between 1937 and 1939, and sports a domed roof of green lead and a splendid, wood-panelled entrance hall. Formerly the site of the exclusive
Hotel de L’Europe
, whose drawing rooms allegedly provided Somerset Maugham with inspiration for many of his Southeast Asia short stories, the building has itself been upstaged by Sir Norman Foster’s
New Supreme Court
just behind on North Bridge Road – mainly thanks to its impressive, flying-saucer-shaped upper tier.