Pearl’s Hill is one of the two hills located on either side of the Singapore River. It was originally known as Mount Stamford, named after Sir Stamford Raffles. In 1822, Lt. James Pearl, Commander of the Indiana, bought over the hill, which was subsequently named after him. Soil from this hill was used to reclaim the land at Commercial Square.
In 1861, upon the completion of Fort Canning, it was realised that Pearl’s Hill was taller than Fort Canning Hill, and was obstructing the trajectory of the guns mounted on the latter. A simple solution was adopted: shave off the top of Pearl’s Hill.
Today, Pearl’s Hill stands forgotten behind the row of huge complexes and housing blocks along Eu Tong Sen Street. While many Singaporeans flock over to the Chinatown area for the Lunar New Year season, I went on a trip around this piece of forgotten land.
A number of roads around Pearl’s Hill share the same namesake, including Pearl’s Hill Road, Pearl Bank and Pearl’s Hill Terrace.
Pearl’s Hill City Park
On top of Pearl’s Hill is the Pearl’s Hill City Park, a once-popular park located right next to Chinatown. It is bounded by Outram Park, Pearl Bank, Pearl’s Hill Terrace, Pearl’s Hill Road and Chin Swee Road. Today, it is mainly used by residents in the surrounding flats and condominiums.
Constructed: 1898 to 1904
Pearl’s Hill Service Reservoir, located at the top of the hill
While most reservoirs we are familiar with in Singapore are locations for waterfront activities, Pearl’s Hill Service Reservoir has a very high level of security, with barbed wire fences surrounding a seemingly fortified structure. It is not dissimilar to the Fort Canning Service Reservoir on Fort Canning Hill, and a few other service reservoirs around Singapore. While the reservoirs that we are familiar with collect rainwater, these service reservoirs store drinking water to be supplied to surrounding households. Till date, all service reservoirs in Singapore are located on higher grounds to maintain sufficient water pressure, although this will change once the service reservoir for Bidadari estate is completed.
In its early years, it was known as High Service Reservoir. Today, it is one of the oldest surviving service reservoirs built by the British.
Designed by Tan Cheng Siong of Archurban Architects Planners
Pearl Bank Apartments
On top of Pearl’s Hill stands a prominent 3-quarter cylindrical-shaped tower. I always see it on my way to Chinatown, but for a long time I never knew what it was. It is the Pearl Bank Apartment, a high-rise private residential building which was the tallest residential building and one with the highest density in Singapore when it was completed. It was the first all-housing project under the Urban Renewal Department (URD)’s “Sale of Sites” programme. The 38-storey building consists of 272 split-level units, 8 penthouses, a commercial area on the first floor and a communal “Sky Park” on the 28th floor.
Staircases – the service spaces on the inner side
The building enjoys a panoramic view of the surrounding. This is ensured by placing the service spaces on the inner side of the “cylinder”. The opening of the “cylinder” faces west to avoid the afternoon sun.
Pearl Bank Apartment
It was put up for en block twice, but both failed.
Designed by John Turnbull Thomson
Constructed: 1843 to 1845
Before Pearl’s Hill was fortified, it played a role in the medical history of Singapore. The First General Hospital of Singapore was built in 1821 near Bras Basah Road and Stamford Road, replacing a shed that was set up in 1819. One year later, it was shifted to a nearby location, and in 1828, yet another new building was built to replace the decaying hospital.
By 1830, this Third General Hospital was facing serious funding problems, and the building was again in disrepair. It eventually received a funding of $2700 from the Chamber of Commerce, and in 1845, the Fourth General Hospital, also known as the Seamen’s Hospital, was opened on Pearl’s Hill.
When the British decided to fortify Pearl’s Hill in 1856, the hospital was forced to relocate to the Kandang Kerbau district. It shifted again to Sepoy Lines in 1882. A bigger, newer hospital was built on the same site in 1926. This seventh incarnation of the General Hospital was officially name the Singapore General Hospital, which has remained at that location ever since.
Designed by John Turnbull Thomson
Constructed: 1844 to 1847
When the Third General Hospital went into financial problems, the colonial government called for the rich to take care of the welfare of the poor. Tan Tock Seng, a local Chinese merchant and philanthropist, responded and contributed $5000 to build a hospital. The hospital building was completed in 1847, and stood next to the Seamen’s Hospital, both of which were designed by John Turnbull Thomson. However, it was left empty for 2 years as there were no enough funds to sustain the operational costs. In the meantime, an attap shed was constructed at the foot of the hill to house patients. After a storm destroyed the attap shed, the Chinese Pauper’s Hospital finally admitted patients in 1849.
Tan Tock Seng passed away in 1850, and the hospital was renamed Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
In 1861, Tan Tock Seng Hopsital moved to the junction of Serangoon Road and Balestier Road (where Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital stands today). In the early 1900s, it moved to its current location at Novena.
Replacing the two hospitals on the hill were the Upper and Lower Barracks.
Conserved: Since 2008
Upper Barracks, with 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace in the background
Together with the Lower Barracks, the 3-storey Upper Barracks was built to house the Straits Settlement Police. In particular, it housed the married policemen of the Sikh Contingent. In 1946, the Straits Settlement Police was disbanded, and after independence, both the Upper and Lower Barracks were taken over by the Ministry of Interior and Defence and the Police Force. The Upper Barracks became known as the Police Operation Headquarters.
Upper Barracks, as viewed from Park Cresent
The building was vacated after the completion of the Police Cantonment Complex. Today, it functions as a commercial building, and the spaces are rented out to a wide range of tenants, including offices, F&B outlets, and the newest café owned by local celebrities Felicia Chin and Sora Ma.
The former Upper Barracks stands out among the existing colonial buildings, as it is one of the longest, at 160m. It used to offer a great panoramic view of the Chinatown area, before the view became obstructed by the new buildings at People’s Park.
201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace
There is a block of flats located right behind the old Upper Barracks. Information on this slab block is limited, but it seems to be used as quarters for the police force. Today, it functions as a hostel for foreign students and workers.
The former Pearl Park Primary School
Along Pearl’s Hill Road is yet another hostel known as Pearl Hill Hostel. The buildings used to house 2 adjacent schools: Pearl Bank School and Park Road School. These 2 schools were previously known as Sepoy Lines School I and Sepoy Lines School II respectively before they moved to this location. The 2 schools subsequently merged to form Pearl Park Primary School in 1979. In 1995, the school was absorbed by Pearl’s Hill School, and the building was converted into Pearl’s Park Police Building. It eventually became a hostel.
Park Road School was named after Park Road, a road that has since been expunged. It used to run between Majestic Theatre and People’s Park (now People’s Park Complex), connecting Eu Tong Sen Street and Pearl’s Hill Road. Another stretch of Park Road connected Pearl’s Hill Road to New Market Road. Both Park Road and Park Crescent are named after the nearby People’s Park. Locals refer to Park Road as chau chi (草市; “grass market” in Hokkien), most likely referring to the outdoor market that used to be at People’s Park.
Two other schools used to be located in this vicinity. Pearl’s Hill School was located behind Pearl Bank School since 1914, while Sepoy Lines Malay School was in front, at the junction of Pearl’s Hill Road and Park Road. In 1971, both Pearl’s Hill School and Sepoy Lines Malay School were relocated to a 12-storey building on the other side of Pearl’s Hill, and the old school buildings were subsequently demolished. The Pearl’s Hill School site is now a plot of fenced up vacant land, while Blk 34 Upper Cross Street HDB flat stands over Sepoy Lines Malay School’s original location.
Blk 34 Upper Cross Street (blue colour building); Sepoy Lines Malay School used to be on the far end
Constructed: Mid 1970s
Chin Swee Road HDBs
The 1970s saw a series of developments around People’s Park. While private residences such as the People’s Park Complex and Centre were built along Eu Tong Sen Street, HDB built a number of flats and facilities on either side of Pearl’s Hill Road. These include Blks 51 to 54 Chin Swee Road, Blk 32 New Market Road, and Blks 33 to 34 Upper Cross Street. Blk 54 and 33 are multi-storey car parks, while Blk 32 houses the People’s Park Food Centre on its first 3 storeys.
Recent additions to the units at Blk 32 New Market Road
Blk 54 Chin Swee Road is perhaps most well-known for the Red Star dim sum restaurant located on the top storey.
Chin Swee Road is named after businessman Lim Chin Swee (林振瑞), who is the son of Lim Eng Keng. However, information on them is limited. The road was also known as jiu lang nei (酒廊內; “in the vicinity of the bar” in Mandarin). The bar is located along Beng Hoon Road (now expunged), near the junction of Chin Swee Road and Havelock Road, and was owned by Cheang Hong Lim.
While walking around the Chin Swee Road HDB flats, this adjacent building caught my attention. A series of huge dumbbell-shaped façade panels are present all around the 5-storey podium, while a similar motive is used for the balconies on the 10-storey tower.
Designed by Timothy Seow & Partners
Landmark Tower along Chin Swee Road
If Pearl Bank Apartments is the most prominent tower located on the south side to Pearl’s Hill, then Landmark Tower would be its equivalent on the north side. At 37 storeys (just 1 storey short of Pearl Bank Apartments), it is clearly visible from the Singapore River and Kreta Ayer as well.
Before Landmark Tower was built, there were 2 roads branching off Chin Swee Road at this area. They are known as Seok Wee Road and Choa Lam Street. Seok Wee Road was named after Khiong Seok Wee (龚菽惠), son of Kiong Kong Tuan (龚光传), who used to own the plantations in this area. Khiong Seok Wee was an entrepreneur who started a shipchandlers firm known as Chop Aik Hoe. Choa Lam Street was named after Choa Lam Tiong, a Chinese merchant.
Pearl’s Hill School
The history of Pearl’s Hill School began at Cross Street, when the Singapore Chinese Branch School was set up by the colonial government in 1876. The school was intended to be a feeder school to government-aided English secondary schools such as Raffles Institution. It was renamed Cross Street School in 1883, and moved to Upper Cross Street (roughly where Hotel 81 Chinatown stands today) 6 years later. It was then converted into a feeder school to Outram Road School in 1907. In 1914, the school was shifted to Pearl’s Hill Road, behind Pearl Bank School, and was renamed Pearl’s Hill School.
This 12-storey building at Chin Swee Road was built in 1971 to house Pearl’s Hill School and Sepoy Lines Malay School, both relocated from Pearl’s Hill Road. It became known as the tallest school building in Singapore.
The school absorbed Pearl Park Primary School in 1995, but student population continued to decrease. At the end of 2001, the school was closed down, and the building was subsequently taken over by the Stamford Student Residence. Today, the building is known as Hotel Re! @ Pearl’s Hill.
Designed by J. P. Thompson
Outram Prison, which was later redeveloped as Outram Park Complex
Every time I pass by Outram Park MRT, I would wonder what the adjacent empty plot of land used to be. A heritage information board placed at the MRT station provides a glimpse of the site’s history.
This area was first developed as Pearl’s Hill Prison in 1847, to alleviate overcrowding problems at the Convict Gaol at Bras Basah Road. In 1882, Her Majesty’s Service (HMS) Criminal Jail was built right next to it. The two jails then become collectively known as Outram Prison, or H. M. Prison (Her Majesty’s Prison). The road that led up to the prison from Outram Road was known as Man Road.
In 1966, Queenstown Remand Prison was opened to replace Outram Prison, which was then demolished and replaced with Outram Park Complex.
Outram Park Complex consists of 12 16-storey HDB flats (Blks 17 to 24 and 26 to 30) arranged at an angle from the main roads. The first 2 storeys of the flats are for commercial use, and are connected to form a continuous shopping complex. Blks 25 and 26 are two multi-storey car parks located on both ends of the estate. The Chancellor Department Store can be considered the anchor tenant of the shopping complex.
There was a bus terminus located in front of the complex, at the open-air car park along Outram Road. It was closed in 1971 and replaced by the New Bridge Road Bus Terminal.
Remnants of the demolished complex. The zig-zag formation is still evident
The flats were listed for en-bloc in 1998, and the residents were relocated to Cantonment Towers. Outram Park Complex, then painted in shades of the rainbow, was then demolished, and the land has been left vacant since.
Demolished: Late 1960s
Outram Road School was officially opened in 1906, along Outram Road (where Outram Park EW Line MRT Station is today). Standard One students from Pearl’s Hill School were transferred over to continue in Standard Two. It served as a feeder school to Raffles Institution until 1942. In 1939, the word “road” was officially dropped from the school name.
In 1953, the arrangement with Pearl’s Hill School was stopped, and one year later, it was converted into a secondary school. It was renamed Outram Secondary School in 1961, and was relocated to York Hill in 1968. The school building was demolished soon after.
There was another Outram Primary School that stood next to Outram Secondary School. I am not sure if it was an offshoot from the latter, or was it a separate establishment. I could trace it on the old street directories back till 1963. However, I do know that it was closed down in 1983, and the students transferred to Zhangde Primary School.
The street directories also revealed a Blk 31 behind Outram Primary School (which seems like a continuation of the block numbers from Outram Park precinct). Any idea what that is?
Outram Road (and Outram Park) was named after Lieutenant General Sir James Outram, a British general who fought alongside Major-General Sir Henry Havelock in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Outram Road and Havelock Road run on either side of Pearl’s Hill, and intersect near the old Zion Road estate.
Outram Road was sometimes referred to as si pai poh (四排埔; “Sepoy plain” in Hokkien). Si pai is a phonetic translation of the name “Sepoy”, which in turn comes from the Persian & Hindi word sipahi, meaning “soldier”. The area where Singapore General Hospital now stands used to be the Sepoy Camp, which housed the Indian soldiers of the East India Company. As such, the entire area, including Outram Road, was known as si pai poh.
File Last Updated: February 7, 2015