When wealthy Indian cattle merchant Moona Kadir (Kader) Sultan (1863-1937) built his mansion Karikal Mahal at East Coast Road in 1917, it was one of the grandest private residences in Singapore. It was named after his birthplace and native town Karikal (Karaikal) in South India, which was, at that time, a French colony.
An impoverished Kadir Sultan came to Singapore in 1879 as a 16-year-old teenager to seek his fortune. He worked hard at the wharves, earning only about $3 a month, before saving enough to start a small money changing business. Years later, Kadir Sultan managed to venture into cattle trading and established the Straits Cattle Trading Company. From there, his business grew rapidly as he monopolised the trade by buying out his competitors. Kadir Sultan became famously known as “The Cattle King” in Singapore.
30 years of hard work and astute business sense saw Kadir Sultan accumulated a vast fortune. At 54 years old, he built his $500,000 seaside palace Karikal Mahal, housing his many wives and children (six sons and five daughters). It was one of the most exquisite residences in Singapore, consisting of two double-storey Victorian-style buildings, designed with elaborated Corinthian columns, arches and facades, with a breathtaking unobstructed view of the sea.
The Municipal president once jokingly told Kadir Sultan that he should name his grand residence Kambing Mahal instead, due to the expensive meat he was selling. As a respected community leader among the local Indian Muslims, Kadir Sultan was conferred a Justice of Peace. In 1925, he was also awarded with the prestigious Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur by the French government for his charitable acts in Malaya and Karaikal.
Now one of the wealthiest men in Singapore, Kadir Sultan had achieved the “high society” status usually dominated by the Europeans. Prominent political and business figures were often invited to Kadir Sultan’s garden parties at Karikal Mahal, including the retirement and farewell party organised for Captain A. R. Chancellor, the Inspector-General of Police, in 1922.
In 1924, an extravagant wedding was held at Karikal Mahal for Kadir Sultan’s eldest son Mohamed Yusoff, attended by hundreds of distinguished guests from the European, Eurasian, Chinese, Muslim, Indian and Ceylonese communities. His other sons also had grand weddings at Karikal Mahal, but these extravagances began to drain Kadir Sultan’s fortune.
At the same time, his company was facing stiff competition from the Europeans, who had also entered the cattle and meat businesses. To make things worse, Kadir Sultan’s staff were implicated in a murder case in 1933. They had assaulted and killed Fazal Shah, an employee of the rivaling Malayan Live Stock Company, at Kandang Kerbau Market (present-day Tekka Market).
A family tragedy happened in 1936 when Kadir Sultan’s eldest son Mohamed Yusoff committed suicide. In the same year, Kadir Sultan himself landed in deep debts and was made a bankrupt. His prized Karikal Mahal was seized and put up for sale to offset his debts. A dejected Kadir Sultan fell into illness and returned to India, where he died as a poor man in his native Karaikal in 1937, at an age of 74.
In 1939, the former Karikal Mahal became the headquarters and clubhouse of the Malayan Magic Circle, formed in 1935 for performing magic shows to the British military and other organisations in Singapore and Johore. But as the war approached, the club had to give up the clubhouse, selling off its furniture and other fittings to raise funds.
During the Second World War, the premises of Karikal Mahal was one of the defensive stations used by the Volunteer Corp to defend the beaches stretching from Tanjong Rhu to Siglap. However, after the Fall of Singapore, the buildings were instead used by the Japanese to hold internees after they had rounded up the local European community. Under the detention, the internees produced newspapers to share information which later became known as the Karikal Chronicle.
After the war, the dilapidated buildings were renovated into a 20-room hotel called Grand Hotel. It opened in 1947, marketing itself as a high end seafront hotel with a short walking distance to the seaside. The ownership of the hotel was later taken over by the Lee Rubber Group.
In 1973, due to the land reclamation in the vicinity, Still Road was extended – the extension was named Still Road South. The nearby coastline was altered hundreds of metres southwards, which meant that Grand Hotel was no longer a seafront hotel.
Meanwhile, the hospitality business had not been a consistent profitable business for the Lee Rubber Group. Grand Hotel was eventually closed in 2000, and part of its premises was converted into a temporary storage place for unwanted furniture.
In early 2009, the former premises of Karikal Mahal were put on the conservation list by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of the preservation efforts for the Katong area.
In 2016, the buildings were given a new lease of life when they were leased to Busy Bees, a British childcare provider founded in 1983. Busy Bees spent $5 million to renovate the buildings, and converted them into the Odyssey The Global Preschool and Pat’s Schoolhouse.
The legend of “The Cattle King” may be forgotten over the time, but his legacy lives on with the splendid buildings he had built a century ago.
Published: 21 September 2020