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 House of Tan Teng Niah
Photograph: Shutterstock

20 historical buildings in Singapore and the stories behind them

We uncover the stories of Singapore's rich heritage behind these historical buildings

By Time Out Singapore editors and Cam Khalid
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However brief the Singapore narrative may seem, delve deep enough you may just uncover how rich our heritage actually is. From to a convent school that’s now a lifestyle enclave to government-offices-turned-museums, it's no wonder that these sites are a hit among city adventurers.

However, not all sites are open to visitors just yet. While museums including the Former Ford Factory, Asian Civilisations Museum, and National Gallery Singapore are welcoming back visitors in Phase 2 of Singapore's reopening plans, places like NUS Baba House and The Battlebox remain closed until further notice. But nonetheless, they're still great to admire from the outside.

RECOMMENDED: The lost landmarks and buildings in Singapore and interesting architecture and landmarks in Singapore

Former Ford Singapore
Photograph: National Archives of Singapore

Former Ford Factory

Things to do Bukit Batok

THEN Apart from cementing Ford Motor Company’s expansion into Southeast Asia, the factory also became known as the site where the British surrendered to the Japanese.

NOW Former Ford Factory is now a museum which, through pictorial exhibits and film documentaries, details the conditions that residents in Singapore and Malaya endured during the Japanese Occupation.

Alternatively, you can navigate the events and memories via its immersive, 360-degree virtual experience. Expect oral history accounts, archival records, and published materials.

Asian Civilisations Museum
Photograph: Asian Civilisations Museum

Asian Civilisations Museum

Things to do City Hall

THEN Known as Empress Place Building, the property functioned as a government office where various administrative departments were stationed during the colonial era.

NOW With seven galleries showcasing more than 2,000 artefacts from the civilisations of China, Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia, the Asian Civilisations Museum one of Singapore’s most impressive. The first floor of galleries charts the story of trade across the region, while the second floor presents systems of faith and belief and the third features materials and design used in Chinese ceramics from the Han to the Qing dynasty.

For a stay-at-home exploration of its collection of Asian antiquities and decorative arts masterpieces, check out #UnderstandEverything from Home with ACM. Great for families, the online portal comes with kid-friendly activities such as recreating Asian masterpieces using household items and fun online resources for the little ones.

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National Gallery Singapore
Photograph: Shutterstock

National Gallery Singapore

Art City Hall

THEN Its sprawling premises was once where the Supreme Court and City Hall – two of the most prominent buildings in the course of Singapore’s political history – resided.

NOW The largest visual art gallery in Singapore showcasing mostly local and Southeast Asian pieces – the National Gallery is one of the best museums in Singapore.

Prefer admiring the artworks from the comfort of your bed? #GalleryAnywhere features rich digital and virtual experiences to keep art lovers engaged and entertained with art. View works by illustrious artists like Lim Cheng Hoe, Thomas Yeo and Ong Kim Seng with a virtual tour of the gallery itself. Mini Picassos can also get their art fix at #SmallBigDreamersAtHome.

Civil Defence Heritage Gallery
Photograph: Shutterstock/Iryna Rasko

Central Defence Heritage Gallery

Kids City Hall

THEN The red and white Central Fire Station, completed in 1908, has a watchtower and living quarters for firemen. It was used to trace fire fighting and civil defence developments in Singapore.

NOW It's a civil defence museum – with fire trucks and equipment on display – for everyone to fully experience and understand this integral part of Singapore's history.

 

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 House of Tan Teng Niah
Photograph: Shutterstock

House of Tan Teng Niah

Things to do Rochor

THEN Built in 1900, this colourful sweet digs complete with eight rooms is the last surviving Chinese villa in Little India. It belonged to the towkay Tan Teng Niah who ran several confectionery factories in Serangoon Road and a rubber smoke-house at Kerbau Road. The house was later restored in the 1980s for commercial use.

NOW While it's off-limits when it comes to entering, its exteriors make up for an eye-catching backdrop fit for the 'gram.    

NUS Baba House

Art Outram

THEN Over 120 years old, this attention-grabbing, blue shophouse once belonged to a wealthy Peranakan family whose head of the household is a shipping merchant.

NOW The heritage house is run by the National University of Singapore's Centre for the Arts. It was restored and reopened in 2007 as the home to Singapore's Peranakan Association, with heirlooms and interiors from the 1920s. 

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Istana Kampong Gelam

Things to do Rochor

THEN The palace of the Malay royalty and the seat of sultanate since 1843. However, the Kampong Gelam estate including the Istana became state land when Singapore gained independence.

NOW In the late 1990s, the government announced plans to transform the former Istana into a Malay Heritage Centre to spotlight the rich arts and cultural tradition of the Malay community. Since opening its doors in 2005, the Centre honours the Malay culture with five permanent galleries, family-friendly festivals and interesting programmes.

Sultan Mosque
Photograph: Terence Ong

Sultan Mosque

Things to do Rochor

THEN The first sultan of Singapore Sultan Hussein Shah built this magnificent mosque In 1824 next to his palace, Istana Kampong Gelam. It’s the biggest mosque in the city, accommodating up to 5,000 people in mass prayer.

NOW Located in the hip ‘hood of Kampong Gelam, the mosque stands out among the heritage shops, cool cafes, fusion restaurants and quirky boutiques. It continues to gather worshippers from every corner of Singapore for prayers.

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Thian Hock Keng Temple
Photograph: Thian Hock Keng Temple

Thian Hock Keng Temple

Things to do Tanjong Pagar

THEN Not only is it the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore, but it’s also the most important temple to the Hokkien community here. Dedicated to Mazu the Goddess of the Sea, the temple originally began as a small joss house at the waterfront in the early 1820s before relocating at Telok Ayer Street in 1839.

NOW The temple has attracted many visitors with its design. The impressive entrance is guarded by lion and tiger statues, and the interior is peppered with intricate carvings and colourful encaustic tiles. And like any place of worship, do be mindful and respectful when visiting.

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
Photograph: Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple/T. Kavindran

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple

Things to do Rochor

THEN The oldest Hindu temple dedicated to Goddess Kali in Singapore is over a century old. During the Japanese air raids in World War II, the temple sheltered civilians and provided them with food.

NOW Due to its redesign in 2014, the temple doesn’t look a day old. The elaborate details that don its exterior attract many visitors in Little India.

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The Majestic
Photograph: Unsplash/Thyla Jane

The Majestic

NOW It was formerly known as the Majestic Theatre, a popular Cantonese opera house. Then in 1938, it was renamed Queen’s Theatre, a cinema screening the latest Cantonese blockbuster films. But during the Japanese Occupation, it started screening other films instead, notably Japanese propaganda films.

NOW Resuming the name The Majestic in the early 2000s, the renovated building became a shopping centre. The main star of the building remains the facade which is decorated with colourful tiles depicting Cantonese opera scenes.

Changi Prison
Photograph: Singapore Prison Service

Changi Prison

THEN A maximum-security prison completed in 1936 to house up to 600 criminals serving long-term imprisonment in British Singapore. During the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, it became an internment camp for civilians and Prisoner-of-Wars (POWs).

NOW Despite the new prison complex that was built in 2004, much of the original prison including the entrance gate, wall and turrets have been retained to remember those who suffered during the Japanese Occupation. It remains as a civilian prison today.

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Fort Canning Park

Things to do City Hall

THEN Formerly known as Government Hill, it was home to Sir Stamford Raffles and other governors before becoming an essential part of Singapore’s defense. But prior to that, it was also known as Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill in Malay) as it was believed that the kings of ancient Singapore were laid to rest there and that it was haunted.

NOW It has attractions, sculptures, and relics from Old Singapore, some dating back to the 14th century. It’s lush, green space also holds music festivals.

St Andrew's Cathedral
St Andrew's Cathedral

St Andrew's Cathedral

Things to do City Hall

THEN The centrally located place of worship served as a temporary hospital during the World War II.

NOW Not much has changed – it's still a place of worship these days. The Anglican Cathedral is Singapore’s largest and welcomes all visitors who are keen to marvel at its architectural splendour. 

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Chijmes

Things to do City Hall

THEN Known as Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), Chijmes used to be the campus of an established Catholic girls school.

NOW A lifestyle enclave brimming with bars, restaurants and cafés – household names include Privé, Coriander Leaf and Whitegrass Restaurant. It's also a popular wedding venue

Fullerton Heritage
Fullerton Heritage

The Fullerton Waterboat House

Clubs Raffles Place

THEN Owing to the views that it commanded, The Fullerton Waterboat house was once the Master Attendant’s Office – where all water activities were overseen – and was subsequently used to provide fresh water to incoming ships.

NOW Just beside The Fullerton Hotel and opposite the photogenic harbour, the lively venue houses famed restaurants and bars like Boathouse and has, by far, one of the most Instagram-worthy Starbucks (yes, really) outlets in Singapore.

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MICA
National Heritage Board

Old Hill Street Police Station

Art

THEN The building used to be one of the finest police barracks in the world, vacating the premises only in 1980.

NOW Its facade is hard to miss – the building has 927 rainbow-coloured windows that calls out for a second (and third) glance. Home to the Ministry of Communications and Information and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, the iconic building’s main courtyard (the ARTrium) frequently plays host to various ad-hoc Arts events – large-scale visual art exhibitions to a diverse range of performances.

Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall

Music City Hall

THEN A makeshift hospital used to treat casualties of the Japanese air raids in 1942. Following the Japanese occupation, the Victoria Memorial Hall then served as a venue where war criminals were put on trial.

NOW Host to various world-class performances and home to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), the concert hall is now an integral pillar to Singapore’s nascent performing arts scene.

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The Battle Box
Photo: Victor Chick WH

The Battle Box

Things to do City Hall

THEN Built between 1936 and 1941, this space formerly served as the head command operations bunker for the Malaya Command.

NOW The Battle Box is now a popular educational destination for tourists and locals alike. The hour-long tours offered here take you into the namesake underground command centre, where the decision to surrender was made and re-tells the story of how Malaya and Singapore succumbed to the Empire of Japan in just 70 days. Guides also explain the roles that the bunker played during the war while showing you around replica and genuine rooms used by the military of the era.

St James Power Station
St James Power Station

St James Power Station

Clubs Habourfront

THEN Singapore’s veteran power station that supplied electricity to nearby residential areas and shipyards.

NOW The nocturnal venue used to house a wide range of popular nightlife destinations but tech company Dyson is set to make the spot its headquarters in Singapore in 2021. 

We've mapped it out

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