Heritage lost and gained
Richard Eu, Chairman of the URA Conservation Advisory Panel talks about selling and retaining heritage
Richard Eu, Group Chief Executive Officer of Eu Yan San International Ltd talks about the role of Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)’s Conservation Advisory Panel as its Chairman, and his family’s heritage buildings.
Richard, 64, has lost much of his family heritage to development like the Empress Hotel and Eu Court constructed in 1932 as a residential block. Then there was Eu Villa, built in 1914 in the Edwardian Baroque style which sat on five acres on Mount Sophia. That was where his late grandfather, the famous local pioneer Eu Tong Sen lived with some of his wives, more than 100 household staff, and a stable of horses. The Eu family sold it in the 1970s and it was torn down in the late 1980s.
Clearly, Richard has fond memories of the place he grew up in. Now helming his grandfather’s Eu Yan Sang Traditional Chinese Medicine chain, the bespectacled former national water skier remarked wryly that his father used to ride his horse from Eu Villa into the Istana grounds. Eyes misting over, he mused aloud about whether the family should have done some kind of land swap with the Government and preserved the villa.
Those were the pre-conservation days, he recalled. In the 1970s and 1980s, survival, economic development and infrastructure building took priority over the preservation of culture, history and identity. The Singapore story had to go on. If those buildings had stood to this day, proposals to conserve them would probably be brought before Richard who chairs the Conservation Advisory Panel (CAP).
Almost as an afterthought, he speaks of another Eu property – Great Southern Hotel in Chinatown. Built in 1936, it was the tallest building in Chinatown and was the first Chinese hotel to have a lift, thereby making it a luxury class hotel. It is no longer in the family’s hands and is now a department store called Yue Hwa Singapore. In other words, it survived. “Luckily, it is conserved,” he muses. “Just look at the intricate wrought-iron work on the balustrades (railings).’’
Striking the balance
The present Group Chief Executive Officer of Eu Yan San International Ltd flips through his file; meeting notes of the panel he has been a member of since 2006. He became its chair in 2010.
Formed to advise the Government on conservation of buildings, the panel, comprising a mix of grassroots leaders, architects, university academics and businessmen, meets every quarter to go through conservation proposals tabled by the URA. Charts, pictures and arguments are presented for the panel to go over. Arguments for the conservation of a particular building in line with the government’s development blueprint have to be balanced against the economic interests of the building’s owners. Discussion over, the panel would make its recommendations to the Ministry of National Development.
“We have heated discussions about what to keep. It’s not always conserved just because it is very old. What may not be very old today would be old in the future,’’ he says, referring to the Singapore Improvement Trust flats and early Housing Board homes. Some conserved buildings might not be architecturally remarkable either. “But they are some sort of a landmark for the neighbourhood and socially significant,’’ he explains.
Animatedly, he tries to search for notes on the preservation of the military parade ground on Sentosa. There was an indentation in the ground, he says, marking where a sergeant-major of colonial times had hammered in his stick over the years. “That should be preserved!’’ he exclaimed.
He then comes across notes on the 101-year old Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, a free hospital started in 1910 by Cantonese merchants in Serangoon. There are photographs of different blocks. “We said, forget about this,’’ he says, pointing to one photo. “This pagoda is not so important,’’ he points to another. It was only when his finger moves to a third photograph that he says why. There are more important structures.
The photograph is of the oldest building on the hospital grounds, circa 1860s. What is not well known is that Kwong Wai Shiu is actually standing on the site of the original Tan Tock Seng Hospital before it moved to Balestier. The panel wanted it saved. It also wanted the ward and administration building, built much later in 1959, conserved because it served as the “face’’ of the charity hospital when approached via Serangoon Road.
With more than 7,000 buildings already on the conservation list, the panel is now seeing more proposals to conserve “smaller’’ pieces of history, like bridges, gates and tombs. And while the CAP was not involved in the debate on Bukit Brown cemetery earlier this year, Richard sees it evolving as some kind of a feedback channel. “Maybe we could allow more public access to the CAP so that we get more points of view. Instead of groups lobbying URA and ministers, it’s possible for CAP to be a sort of interface,’’ he says.
A hold on tradition
We are seated in the second floor conference room of the Eu Yan San office along South Bridge Road. The building’s facade, which dates back to around 1910, and painted in an immaculate shade of white, has been conserved as part of plans to keep the Chinatown district authentic. The innards, though, were ripped out in 1993. Rotting wooden floors and staircases do not for safety make. “Nothing’s original,’’ he says. Intriguingly, he adds: “We kept the hole though.’’
He goes to the furthest end of the room and moves aside a curtain. There is a hole big enough for a man to go through. Peer down into it and it’s the Eu Yan San shop floor. There is a similar hole in the ceiling and in the roof. Herbs used to be hoisted up from the first floor to be stored on the upper floors or laid out on the roof to dry in the sun, Richard says. “We kept this as a memory of what it used to be.’’
Richard Eu, a trained lawyer and a one-time banker and venture capitalist, is at the helm of the most traditional of businesses — Chinese medicine. But go to a Eu Yan Sang outlet and it’s no dingy dark place in a Chinatown alley. The outlets look like department stores, with uniformed staff, soft lighting and herbs neatly packed in boxes and put in glass cases.
Yet the process of preparing the herbs is still the same, Richard explains. You still need to sort them by hand.
We move out of the conference room. In the reception area is a painting of Eu Villa. A road sign, Eu Tong Sen Street, is above the door. But what catches the eye is a grandfather clock that had come from the villa. It is more than 100 years old, he says. He points out that it has four different chimes: Bows and Bells, Whittington, Westminster and Saint Michael. It works, but has now been put on “silent’’ mode, he says, before I could ask to hear it sound.
He admits to feeling a bit aggrieved at the disappearance of his family’s buildings but adds that it can’t be helped. “At least we got this building from those days,’’ he says referring to the stretch of six conserved shophouses along South Bridge Road. “A lot of it is gone,’’ he mutters.
What will you leave for your children, I asked. He has three sons. “They never saw all that stuff,’’ he says. Then he perks up. A photographer has entered the room and Richard willingly lets himself be shepherded round the building. It’s a portrait taking session and he is beaming. He is, after all, in the building that has remained in his family for some decades now.
In land-scarce Singapore, proactive efforts since the early 1980s has resulted in more than 7,000 historic buildings and structures conserved in some 100 areas. While many buildings and structures are precious, it is not possible to keep every old building. With growing development needs, much thought goes into balancing these needs and deciding which buildings to retain. When selecting buildings for conservation, several factors are considered, including architectural significance and rarity, economic impact, cultural, social, religious and historical significance. Retaining Singapore’s identity and heritage continues to be an important aspect of city planning. The Conservation Advisory Panel set up in 2002 is one of the many ways in which URA, the national planning and conservation authority, gains views from the ground and promotes greater understanding of gazetted built heritage.