Jane and her guides know their stuff. They dig deep and go after the off-beat, the secret, and the forgotten stories and facts to showcase the real Singapore, and its fascinating multi-faceted history that's more nuanced than many realise. Here's a taste of the hundreds of bits of Singapore's culture and heritage that are served up on each and every one of Jane's SG tours. Enjoy!
Singapore's Pair of Synagogues
The Maghain Aboth synagogue was built in 1878 on Waterloo Street within Singapore’s then Jewish Quarter and it's considered the oldest synagogue in Southeast Asia. The ornate Chesed-El Synagogue on Oxley Rise was designed in 1905 by prolific Swan & Maclaren architect R.A.J. Bidwell, who designed many prominent buildings including the Atbara House on Gallaop Road, Eden Hall, Goodwood Park Hotel, Raffles Hotel and the Victoria Concert Hall. Chesed-El was built by Sir Manasseh Meyer (1846-1930), a Sephardic Jew born in Bagdad, Iraq, and educated in India. Meyer emigrated to Singapore in 1861 and became one of Singapore’s most prominent Jewish businessmen and property owners — he was knighted in 1920 and he has a street named after him in Katong. When Meyer had a falling out with the Maghain Aboth congregation, he decided to build his own private house of worship, Chesed-El, on the grounds of his "Belle Vue" estate on Oxley Rise. Though the mansion was torn down in the 1980s and replaced by a condo, both synagogues survive and are national monuments.
Join one of Jane's annual Jewish Community Tours to learn more about this fascinating group of early Singapore pioneers.
The Tanglin Barracks
Built in the 1860s on former nutmeg plantations on land owned by William E. Willan and Chinese businessman Hoo Ah Kay (also known as Whampoa), the Tanglin Barracks were planned as a base for Singapore-based British soldiers and officers, away from the waterfront and commercial center of Singapore. Merchants didn’t want military bases near them due to the higher risk of attack. The huge buildings have large multi-tiered roofs to allow for better ventilation during the stifling pre-air conditioning days. After years of neglect, in the 1990s, many of the buildings were repurposed as furniture stores, and then more recently as high-end restaurants, bars and other businesses, and the area is now called Dempsey Hill. Most of the roads in the area were named after the military barracks’ commanding officers during Colonial times, including Ridout, Lewin, Harding, Sherwood and Dempsey. Like other military bases in Singapore — Seletar, Sembawang, Portsdown and Gillman — there are many early 20th-century black and white colonial houses in the Tanglin area built to accommodate military officers and their families. The higher your rank, the bigger the house assigned to you. There are also a few Colonial-era churches in the Dempsey Hill neighbourhood, including the Romanesque-style Anglican St. George’s Garrison Church built in 1910 for military personnel. Things heated up during World War II, when the Japanese used the church as an ammunition depot and the Chaplain's Quarters became the home of a commanding Japanese officer.
Singapore Botanic Gardens
The Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG) is the only major garden in Southeast Asia designed in the natural English landscape style, in contrast to the formal, symmetrical layout of gardens in most of Asia. It was established in 1859 at its present location along Cluny Road. (Singapore's first botanical garden was initiated by Stamford Raffles in 1822 on Government Hill, now Fort Canning.) Pathways curve and wend through the SBG's 74 hectares, with statues and gazebos popping up randomly midst thick untamed patches of jungle and expansive rolling lawns dotted with giant trees, from the Tembusu to the Kapok, Saga and Jelawi trees. During his tenure from 1860-1876, SBG’s first superintendent, landscape designer Lawrence Niven, transformed what were basically overgrown plantations and patches of virgin rainforest into a public park and research grounds for the development of various plants and crops, including the cultivation of Southeast Asia's first rubber trees. Niven oversaw the excavation of Swan Lake and the band parade area. With the exception of the Sundial Garden, everything that exists there today is largely based on Nevin’s designs. A street near busy Selegie Road is named after him, a few kilometers from the SBG. In 2015, the SBG was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status, Singapore's first.
For tours focused on the SBG or Singapore's other natural treasures, check out Jane's Naturally Singapore offerings.
One of Singapore’s oldest streets should really be called “Worship Road.” Waterloo Street, sandwiched between Bras Basah and Middle roads, was originally referred to as Church Street, not after a house of worship, but after Thomas Church, a British administrator in mid-19th century Singapore. To avoid confusion because there was already another street with the same name near Raffles Place, in 1858 it was renamed Waterloo Street after the famous British defeat of France’s Napoleon. (It was also known colloquially as Fourth Road, or in Chinese, “si ma lu,” and in Hokkien, "si beh lor" — in the old days, First Street was North Bridge Road, Second Victoria Street, Third Queen Street, Fourth Waterloo, Fifth Bencoolen and Sixth Selegie.) In the 1870s, the two-block thoroughfare took quite a religious turn. The austere Middle Road Church and larger Church of Saints Peter and Paul were built, and so was the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, considered the oldest surviving synagogue in Singapore and in greater Southeast Asia. The Sri Krishna Temple and Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple were founded around the same time. Most are still functioning houses of worship. There are also several old homes on the street built by Jewish merchants that in recent years have been repurposed to house arts groups and other businesses.
Janes SG Tours runs regular tours around the Bras Basah area, including the Hidden Treasures of Orchard Road and Jewish Community Heritage, to explore its multi-cultural history, as well as to celebrate various festivals such as Easter and Christmas. Click here for more details on Jane's SG Tours' Faith & Festivals tours and Tuesday Small-Group Discovery Walks.
Battlefield Archaeologist Jon Cooper
Jane’s tours and events often feature guest experts in addition to her stable of knowledgeable guides. One of Jane’s most popular experts is battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper. The affable Jon spent several stints in Singapore (the last, 2009-2016) digging and researching around the Adam Park area, where intense fighting took place in the lead up to the Japanese occupation, and where POWs were later corralled. He wrote the book Tigers in the Park, which details life in Adam Park just before and during WWII, and he’s also created the virtual museum, www.adamparkproject.com, both testament to Jon’s expertise and passion about Singapore’s role in WWII and his knack for understanding the precise and nuanced chronology of events.
Jon’s vast reservoir of knowledge is based on more than 1,000 WWII relics unearthed in Adam Park by him and his team of volunteers. He’s pursued stories from military veterans he managed to find and interview, and he’s gleaned valuable insights from family members who shared letters from loved ones who fought in Singapore during WWII. Now based in Scotland, Jon commits to sharing his great knowledge, passion, and insights into Singapore’s WWII years by continuing to visit regularly for tour and speaking engagements related to the Adam Park Project and his knowledge of WWII history in the Kent Ridge, Pasir Panjang, and Alexandra Park areas.
Check out Jane’s SG Tours Wartime Singapore tours and also her special events.
The Bell Tolls For Thee
Political activist Paul Revere is best known for his midnight horse ride through the Massachusetts countryside on April 18, 1775, to warn the Americans that the British were coming. He was the guy responsible for the hanging of two lanterns in a church tower in Boston that signaled British troops would be approaching “by sea” via crossing the Charles River rather than “by land.” Aside from him being an American folk hero, Paul Revere was also a respected bell maker back in the day, and his company’s “Revere Bells” were coveted by many. In fact, in 1843, Paul Revere’s daughter, Maria Revere Balestier, who was married to Joseph Balestier, the first American Consul to Singapore, donated a Revere Bell to Singapore’s Church of St. Andrew (the predecessor of St. Andrew’s Cathedral). She gifted the bell with the stipulation that it be rung for five minutes every night at 8pm to signal the start of curfew. 19th century Singapore was an unsafe place come nightfall, with robberies and muggings commonplace, not to mention prowling tigers. Today, you can find the bell, the only Revere Bell residing outside of the United States, in the Singapore History Gallery at the National Museum of Singapore.
Learn more about the Revere Bell and other fascinating Colonial-era tidbits on a Tuesday Small-Group Discovery Walk around Singapore’s civic district.
A Sea of Treasures in Sembawang
From a wild and woolly region of rubber and gambier plantations, rustic beaches and marshes teeming with birds along the island's north shore, in the 1920s and 1930s, Sembawang (named after the sembawang tree, or Mesua ferruginea), became a major military installation for the British. The British built the Sembawang naval base in 1938 to defend Singapore — and we all know how that unfortunately turned out. Many WWII-era wartime structures remain, from pillboxes to bunkers and air-raid shelters, and some 50 or so houses built for senior naval personnel have also survived. There's the arts-and-crafts-style Admiralty House from the 1930s, gazetted as a National Monument in 2002, which once had open views of the causeway and is now a school. The nearby early 20th-century Beaulieu House is another lovely vestige of the past. It faces the water and is adjacent to the former naval docks (now a commercial wharf) and also one of Singapore's last natural slivers of beach; it earned conservation status in 2005.
Check out Jane's fascinating tours that dig deep into Singapore's colonial and WWII past.
Royal Cemetery Buried in Plain Sight
Hidden in plain sight off of busy Victoria Street, a sprawl of overgrown grass and weeds contains countless small stone markers like the pawns of a chess board thrown haphazardly into a field. This abandoned 19th-century Muslim burial ground, known as the Jalan Kubor cemetery, languishes between the neighbourhoods of Kampong Glam and Little India. It was originally divided into three parts for: the Sultan and his family, wealthy Malay merchants, and Indian Muslims. The remains of various figures from early Singapore buried in the now forgotten graveyard include Tengku Abdul Kadir, the president of the Singapore-Malay Union during the 1940s. There are more than 4,000 graves on the two adjacent sites that straddle Jalan (Street) Kubor, with the first burials dating back to 1848 and the last, to 1963.
Upcoming tours that pay a visit include the Tuesday Small-Group Discovery Walk series.
Singapore’s First Big Racecourse
Today it’s a big grassy field called Farrer Park at the edge of Little India along the aptly named Race Course Road. In mid 19th-century Singapore, however, this patch of land at the junction of Bukit Timah and Serangoon roads was the scene of galloping horses and betting crowds of colonial Europeans knocking back their stengahs — whiskey and soda. Singapore’s first big racecourse was created on drained swampland, with tracks and fancy grandstands built for the wealthy European expats and Malay Royalty who gathered there in their finest garb. It was the place to see and be seen … and if you were lucky, to win a few dollars to boot. The grand sum of $150 was the prize money given out at the first race, the Singapore Cup, in February 1843. Nearly a century later, the Singapore Turf Club racecourse moved to a larger area down the road on a former Bukit Timah rubber estate. In 2000, it relocated again, this time north to Kranji, where the galloping continues.
Learn more about the many facets of Little India, sign up for a Tuesday Small-Group Discovery Walk.
Singapore's Got Great Feng Shui
Most of us know Feng Shui has something to do with pointing your desk in the right direction, clearing out the junk from under your bed, and letting as much natural light into the room as possible. The ancient Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui, loosely translated as the wind-water connection, is all about tapping into the flow of universal energy — qi or chi — to create balance and harmony in one’s personal and work environment. The principles of Feng Shui — from the Tai-Chi symbol Yin-Yang to the five main Feng Shui elements (wood, fire, metal, earth and water) — have been collectively applied in cosmopolitan Singapore.
In the CBD, a closer look at some of the landmark buildings reveal that logos, building designs and the surrounding landscape embrace subtle, but significant Feng Shui features known only to the trained eye. For instance, the three towers of Marina Bay Sands face the country’s financial district banks — a prosperous sign — and the infinity pool at the top is like a lake at the peak of a huge mountain, which is considered a symbol of being in harmony with the surroundings. The Singapore Flyer observation wheel nearby spins towards the city to shower it with fortune and prosperity, and better yet, the Flyer has 28 viewing capsules and each holds a maximum of 28 people. The numbers 2 and 8 translated into Chinese loosely mean double prosperity. The beautiful ArtScience Museum just in front of Marina Bay Sands looks like a lotus flower, a bloom representing good fortune and enlightenment. Nearby, several buildings in Singapore’s financial district are very tall and rectangular, deliberately built, some say, to resemble earth-like features like trees, while the surrounding Singapore River represents, of course, the water element.
To learn more about Singapore's Good Feng Shui, browse our Faiths & Festivals tours.
The Gate of Hope
You wouldn’t expect a secret door to a sad chapter in Singapore’s past to be smack dab in the middle of the busy dining and pub hub Chijmes. Formerly the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, or CHIJ, Chijmes is housed in what once was an orphanage and girls’ school dating back to the 19th century. Unwed, poor mothers who couldn’t afford to take care of their babies would leave the little bundles, often sickly, and usually girls, at the side door to the convent. During the Japanese Occupation, the number of babies left at the door surged to about 100 a month. Infants who survived worked at the convent and went to school there.
To learn more about this fascinating chapter in the Singapore story, sign up for a Tuesday Small-Group Discovery Walk in the Bras Basah area.