Everyone must have dozed off during history classes in secondary school before—don’t worry, we’ve all been there. On the off chance that you were awake and paying attention, you’d notice that history lessons, especially the chapters that pertain to Singapore, revolve mostly around major events: the founding of Singapore, World War Two, the separation from Malaya, and so on. But there are a number of interesting facts about many historical buildings and landmarks that your history teacher may have left out of the classroom lesson.
Sultan Mosque: The Secret Ring of Glass Bottles
First built in the 1820s, the Sultan Mosque was the focal point of the historic Kampong Glam area before it was demolished and rebuilt a century later. Still, the name remained, and it is now considered the national mosque of Singapore. The first thing you’d notice about the Sultan Mosque are the two golden onion domes above the east and west façades, each topped by pinnacles with crescent moons and stars. On closer inspection, however, you’ll find in the bases of the domes curious rows of glass bottles that look somewhat out of place. During the reconstruction of the mosque, trustees approached Muslim communities in Singapore to help shoulder the $200,000 cost. While more affluent members of the Malay community were able to make substantial contributions, the building committee at that time believed that the mosque should be a place of worship for both the rich and the poor. As such, they urged the less-fortunate Muslims to contribute glass bottles—the same ones you see today.
CHIJMES: The Home for Abandoned Babies
“Home for Abandoned Babies” may sound foreign, but it was in fact the nickname of one of the most prominent historical landmarks in downtown Singapore: CHIJMES, formerly the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. CHIJMES used to be a place where distraught mothers abandoned their babies. The story goes something like this: In 1854, a group of well-educated and socially conscious nuns, known as the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, arrived in Singapore from France to set up a Catholic convent. The complex eventually became an orphanage, and many women who could not afford to keep their babies often left them at the orphanage’s side gate. Many of these infants were Chinese girls born in the Year of the Tiger, as there was a strong superstitious belief that “Tiger Girls” would bring bad luck to the family. Today, the gate is known as the “Baby Gate” or “Gate of Hope,” and is located along Victoria Street.
Kallang Airport: Amelia Earhart’s Pit Stop No.24
Opened on 12 June 1937, Kallang Airport was Singapore’s very first civil airport. It had a long grassy landing zone, slipway for seaplanes, and an impressive terminal building, all of which contributed to its nickname of the “finest airport in the British Empire.” One of Kallang Airport’s first visitors was Amelia Mary Earhart, the American aviation pioneer and the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. The famed aviator was attempting her round-the-world trip for the second time, and described Kallang Airport, her 24th pit stop, as “an aviation miracle of the East.” However, two weeks after leaving Singapore behind, Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10E Electra disappeared around Howland Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in early July, never to be seen or heard from again.
St James Power Station: The First Singapore Powerhouse
If you’re thinking of a club to dance a Saturday night away, St James Power Station would be a pretty good bet. However, less than a century ago, it had little to do with Singapore’s vibrant nightlife. Built between 1924 and 1927 by the British, St James Power Station, as the name suggests, served as a coal-fired power station for Singapore. But as the city’s population increased exponentially during the post-war period, the power station failed to meet the electrical needs of the entire country—and it was shut down in 1962. It wasn’t until 2004 did the club maven Dennis Foo decide to restore the power station into a multi-concept entertainment hub and nightclub. Over the next two years, $43 million was spent renovating the interiors and conserving the Edwardian façade, giving the old power station a new jolt of life and energy.
Raffles Hotel: The Grave of the Last Singaporean Tiger
Established by two Armenian brothers from Persia in 1887, Raffles Hotel is one of the most iconic landmarks in Singapore. The prestigious hotel has hosted famous guests, such as Queen Elizabeth II, Charlie Chaplin, Michael Jackson and, as one legend goes, an intrepid Bengal tiger. The beast had escaped its enclosure in a nearby “native show” in 1902 and snuck into the hotel’s Bar & Billiard Room. Mr Philips, a teacher from the nearby Raffles Institution, took his rifle to the hotel to hunt down the dangerous feline. As it hid in darkness, Mr Philips fired five blind shots in its general direction. One bullet penetrated the creature’s skull right between its eyes, thus ending the life of what is claimed to be Singapore’s very last tiger. Even though many say that the story is mere myth, no one has ever disproven it.
By Wei Lien Chin
This article first appeared in Going Places.