Before the Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station came into existence in the area between Orchard and Penang Roads in 1987, this was the site of the Amber Mansions, one of the prominent landmarks of the Orchard vicinity.
Designed by Swan & Maclaren architectural firm and built in 1922 (or 1928 according to some sources), Amber Mansions was truly one of Singapore’s first shopping centres. It was named after its owner Joseph Aaron Elias’ (1881-1949) family’s clan name. Joseph Elias was a well-known local Jewish businessman who also had Elias Road and Amber Road named after him and his family.
Besides the shops, Amber Mansions also comprised walk-up residential apartments and office units, hence it was also considered to be the first block of flats at Orchard Road, and one of Singapore’s earliest flats along with Crescent Flats (built in 1909 at Meyer Road), St Nicholas Flats (at River Valley Road) and Meyer’s Flats (at North Bridge Road). For comparison, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was established in 1927 and only began building low-cost public flats in the 1930s.
Amber Mansions after its opening brightened up a section of Orchard Road; a remarkable moment considering much of the undeveloped Orchard Road remained in darkness when night fell. A 1923 newspaper article reported that Amber Mansions’ ground-floor tenants Sime Darby and Malayan Motors, with their flashy lightings throughout the night, added considerably to the brightness of the verandah footways and public roads outside the building.
Amber Mansions, before the Second World War, was well-known for its exquisite boutiques that showcased the latest fashion trends and provided high-end shopping experiences to the elite class in Singapore. European women were lured to Amber Mansions’ popular Maison Martin in the 1930s to get their facial and hair treatments and manicures done.
Other than the luxurious shops, Amber Mansions was also home for many expatriate families, whose men went to work in the city area by carriages or rickshaws, and the women played tennis at the Ladies Lawn at Dhoby Ghaut, where Indian dhobies did their laundry.
At three storeys tall, Amber Mansions’ front façade attractively followed the curve of Penang Road, with its ground level shops facing the road and architects and lawyers’ suites occupying the upper floors.
Prominent local architect Lee Kip Lin (1925-2011) once described its elegant architectural style as possibly one of the best-designed post-World War I buildings in Singapore.
The glory days of Amber Mansions never quite recovered after the Second World War. Instead of the uptown stores and boutiques, it began to offer office spaces to the small and medium businesses, such as the Straits Photo Studio which operated there from 1945 to 1955. Others were the likes of travel agencies, course providers and interior design firms.
Non-commercial organisations, such as the Singapore Employers Federation and Singapore Society of Accountants, also set up their offices and conference rooms at Amber Mansions in the sixties and seventies. The British Council, which started their operations in Singapore in 1947, moved their office from Raffles Museum and St Andrew’s School to Amber Mansions in 1968, where they stayed for several years before shifting to Cathay Building in 1972.
Amber Mansions was the hosting venue for galleries too, such as the Swan Tea House and Swan Art Gallery opened in 1971.
Other well-known tenants of the Amber Mansions included the Celestial Room, a popular place in the sixties and seventies among the youngsters who would turn up in their bell-bottoms and miniskirts for Sunday tea dances with off-beat cha-cha.
The iconic old English-flavour Fosters Café and Restaurant, with their signature steaks, mushroom pies and pork sausages cooked by Hainanese chefs, had been operating at Amber Mansions for 20 years since their opening on 1 April 1963.
The restaurant’s founder Stanley Foster, was the buddy of Chiam Heng Luan, who set up the popular Berkeley Restaurant at the Tudor-style Sloane Court Hotel at Balmoral Road. Both men had served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the fifties – one as a sergeant-major and the other a Hainanese seaman-bartender – and became the best of friends.
Fosters Café and Restaurant continued their fare at the nearby Specialists’ Shopping Centre after Amber Mansions was torn down.
Situated just opposite of the MacDonald House, Amber Mansions was also affected by the shocking terrorist act that killed three victims on 10 March 1965. A week later, an anonymous person claimed to have planted a bomb at Amber Mansions. The police quickly cordoned off the building and its surrounding areas, but fortunately it turned out to be a hoax.
Amber Mansions was owned by the Singapore Building Corporation in the seventies. To develop Orchard Road into a popular shopping belt and also to construct Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit’s (MRT) North-South Line (NSL) tunnels, the government began to acquire more than 20 acres (82,000 square metres) of lands at the Orchard area. Other than the Singapore Building Corporation, the major land and property owners affected were Wearne Brothers, Shaw Foundation and the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) group.
In December 1978, Amber Mansions was acquired by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). It had to make way for the building of Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station. Amber Mansions’ last tenants – Harrows Department Store, University Bookstore, Singer, Benjamin boutique and a number of families – were notified to move out by March 1983. The vacant building was eventually demolished in 1984.
Sri Sivan Temple, Amber Mansions’ immediate neighbour, was also affected by the MRT project. First built in 1821 next to the Jewish Cemetery, it was one of Singapore’s oldest places of worship. Its Orchard Road temple was established in 1850, and had existed there for more than a century. After the acquisition, Sri Sivan Temple was relocated in 1983 to a temporary temple at Serangoon Road for about a decade, before it moved to its present-day site at Geylang East Avenue 2 in 1993.
Published: 29 November 2022