It would be hard to conjure an image more at odds with the present reality of Orchard Road than historian Mary Turnbull’s depiction of a colonial-era “country lane lined with bamboo hedges and shrubbery, with trees meeting overhead”. A hundred years ago, merchants here for their daily constitutionals would have strolled past rows of nutmeg trees, followed at a discreet distance by their manservants. Today, Orchard Road is lined with symbols of consumption: huge, glitzy shopping malls and worthwhile restaurants and bars, either in the malls themselves or housed in a number of top-flight hotels.
Although the parade of designer names here is dazzling, it’s noteworthy that the area has not been totally untouched by the malaise afflicting city-centre shopping precincts the world over, losing trade to malls elsewhere in the downtown area and all over the island. Perhaps with this in mind, Singapore’s planners have put Orchard Road through a costly makeover in recent years, revamping walkways and adding three new malls. The most striking, Ion Orchard, right above Orchard MRT, has a bulgy glass frontage vaguely reminiscent of Theatres on the Bay, and is topped by a tower of luxury apartments. Just about the only building of significant age left on Orchard Road itself can be glimpsed west of Scotts Road, where the Thai embassy has its origins in the purchase of a mansion here by the Siamese king in the late nineteenth century. Today the embassy cuts a distinguished but lonely figure, dwarfed by the modern architecture around it.
A number of architecturally notable houses have survived the bulldozers at Emerald Hill, behind the Centrepoint mall. The hill was granted to Englishman William Cuppage in 1845 and was for some years afterwards the site of a large nutmeg plantation. After his death in 1872, the land was subdivided and sold off, much of it to members of the Peranakan community. Walk up Emerald Hill Road today and you’ll see exquisite houses from the era, in the so-called Chinese Baroque style, typified by the use of coloured ceramic tiles, carved swing doors, shuttered windows and pastel-shaded walls with fine plaster mouldings. Unsurprisingly, quite a few now host trendy restaurants and bars, with a few more in a tastelessly jazzed-up row of shophouses called Cuppage Terrace, close to the Centrepoint mall.
Malls line the initial stretch of Scotts Road, leading north from Orchard MRT towards Newton Circus, before giving way to the impressive Goodwood Park Hotel, with gleaming walls and a distinctive squat, steeple-like tower. Having started life in 1900 as the Teutonia Club for German expats, it was commandeered by the British Custodian of Enemy Property with the outbreak of war across Europe in 1914, and didn’t open again until 1918, after which it served for several years as a function hall. In 1929, it became a hotel, though by 1942 it and the Raffles (designed by the same architect, incidentally) were lodging Japanese officers; perhaps fittingly, the Goodwood Park was later used for war-crimes trials. Today the hotel remains one of the classiest in town and is a well-regarded venue for a British-style tea.
A three-minute walk west along Orchard Road from Dhoby Ghaut MRT takes you past the Plaza Singapura mall, beyond which stern-looking soldiers guard the main gate of Singapore’s Istana (Malay for “palace”), built in 1869. With ornate cornices, elegant louvred shutters and a high mansard roof, the building was the offi cial residence of Singapore’s British governors; now it’s home to Singapore’s president, a ceremonial role for which elections are nonetheless contested. The first Sunday of the month (except in July and August) sees a changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the main gate at 5.45pm. Visitors can only enter the grounds fi ve days a year ($1, or $2 with access to part of the Istana buildings); details on www.istana.gov.sg.