Historical Hill

by Helen Conway, Nov 25, 2001 | Destinations: Singapore

The steps were cut into the hillside. They were steps up which I might ordinarily have been able to saunter. And the hill was not that high. But Singapore's equatorial climate was in full force and I was gulping for air like a fish out of water, utterly unused to such excessive humidity. Every few steps, I stopped to try and oxygenate my lungs, feeling relieved that there was no one around to witness my apparent feebleness. I hoped it would be worth the struggle when I reached the summit. For this was "Forbidden Hill."

Well, it used to be known as "Forbidden Hill," or Bukit Larangan, back in the days when it was home to the mighty rulers of the Sri Vijayan empire. Now, however, it goes by the slightly more innocuous name of Fort Canning Park. This 19-hectare reserve overlooks the thronging shopping oasis of Orchard Road. At the top of the steps, with the hustle of Singapore left below, it is possible to temporarily forget that you are in the middle of one of the most commercial of Asian cities.

One of the most popular tracks in the park is the 19th-Century History Trail, which takes the visitor around some of the attractions that represent Singapore's chequered past.

Stamford Raffles arrived here in 1819 and chose the hill as his place of residence. The first Government House was built here in 1822. It appears that Raffles was not the first leader of Singapore to appreciate the commanding views that the site offered: when the area was being cleared of forest for construction, ruins of brick buildings were discovered. Further archaeological digs unearthed coins and shards of pottery dating from the 12th century. Many of these can be viewed in the displays in the Fort Canning Centre.

The Centre is housed in the former army barracks, which were built very much in the colonial style, combining the practical open verandas with an air of British grandeur. It overlooks the verdant gardens sloping away towards the city and is overshadowed by large oak trees, obviously planted to remind the homesick soldiers of old Blighty.

The Centre is now home to the Singapore Dance Theatre and Theatreworks, as well as the 100-seater Black Box Theatre. Inside, I expected to find the place set up for visitors, perhaps with an information centre or a kiosk but all I found was a drink machine and silently empty corridors. I found my way to the main entrance foyer where there hung sepia photographs of the 19th-century views from the hill to the nearby Singapore River and beyond.

Some of the archaeological finds are also displayed in this hall. The coins come from several regions, illustrating Singapore's importance as a trading post. Much of the pottery is of the celadon variety, the grey-green porcelain most common in the 14th century. Affluent people would have their dinnerware made in green, as it was believed that this colour could detect poison.

It is thought that these treasures once belonged to the rulers of Singapore. Subsequent discoveries showed that the ruler's palace was at the summit of the hill; on the middle slopes were brick shrines and the workshops for the palace craftsmen were located further down.

Raja Iskandar Shah was the last of the five kings to rule Singapore during this flourishing era. Iskandar fled the country when it was attacked in 1396 and he founded the seaport of Melaka. Reports state that he died in 1420 although it is not known where exactly he is buried.

A shrine dedicated to him is located near the Fort Canning Centre. It was built in 1822 and declared a "keramat," or an auspicious place to visit. This befittingly imperial structure rests under the shade of trees and people often come here to light incense.

When Raffles settled the site, he decided to create an experimental spice garden. A much smaller one is still here, not far from the keramat, and you can wander along the paths, inhaling the scent of cloves and cinnamon that floats in the air.

Fort Canning did not receive its name from its peaceful gardens, however. In 1859, the area was established as a military centre and the fort was completed in 1861. It was named after Viscount Charles John Canning who was the Governor-General and the first Viceroy of India.

To construct the fort, the top of the hill was levelled off to create a flat area of three hectares. Only one of the fortress entrances still remains, a relatively squat, stone structure with solid timber doors. It now looks incongruous, being situated unprepossessingly in the serene tree-lined avenue. An information plaque here provides the enlightening statistic that in 1867 the fort had seven 68-lb guns, eight 8-inch guns, two 13-inch mortars and 14-lb cannonades.

Also built within the fort were barracks for the European and Indian soldiers, as well as a hospital and gunpowder magazines. Most of the fortress was destroyed in 1926 when the service reservoir was constructed.

During the Second World War, Singapore's largest underground military operations complex was created on the hill. It was from this bunker that the decision was taken to surrender Singapore to the Japanese. This scene has been recreated at the Battle Box, where it is acted out by animated lifelike figures. The Battle Box was opened to the public on 15 February 1997, exactly 55 years after Singapore fell.

In the gardens in front of the Fort Canning Centre are other historical points of interest, one of which is the old Christian cemetery. This was used between 1822 and 1865 and around 600 people were buried here, a third of whom were Chinese-Christians.

The southern half of the cemetery was for Anglicans and the northern half was for other Christian denominations. Two impressive stone archways mark the entrances to the cemetery. They were designed by Captain Charles Edward Faber who was the Superintending Engineer for the Straits Settlement. They stand as the earliest examples of Gothic Revival style to be introduced into Singapore.

By the 1970s, most of the tombstones were dilapidated, so they were uprooted and mounted into a wall that runs down one side of the gardens. An attempt at deciphering the faded inscriptions reveals many English names with short lives; they too must also have been unaccustomed to such climatic conditions and tropical diseases.

Two cupolas stand in a shady spot of the gardens. They were designed by an Irishman, George Drumgoole Coleman, who was an important architect of early Singapore. The domes atop the cupolas are similar to the one that was on the Armenian Church, also designed by Coleman (although this dome was removed when the church was remodelled in 1854). There is no record of the cupolas being built or of their specific purpose, other than perhaps a peaceful place by which to rest.

Nearby stands an imposing memorial of four castellated columns, linked by gothic archways. Its sheer size seems quite excessive to say that it is in honour of a five-month-old child. This baby, however, was James Brooke Napier, the son of Maria Frances Napier, Coleman's widow. The dates show Coleman passing away in 1844 and, as her son to her new husband, William Napier, died at sea on the 17th February 1845, it appears that Mrs. Coleman did not tarry at finding a second husband. The grandness of this memorial for a baby, juxtaposed only a few metres away from the weathered, wall-mounted stelae of the "ordinary" people, reflects how much importance was accorded to the family. William Napier's eminence grew when he later became Lieutenant-Governor at Labuan off the north coast of Borneo.

The placid surroundings of Fort Canning Park certainly make a couple of hours here a welcome break from the accelerated pace of life in the city streets below. Unless, of course, your visit happens to coincide with a visiting school party. The Fort Canning Centre and the Battle Box are occasionally besieged with children armed with clipboards, although they usually seem more interested in answering their text messages than their questionnaires.

But schoolchildren and visitors alike can all learn something of Singapore's past on this historical hill. After you've made it up the steps, of course.

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