Singapore Architect 214
The Old Thong Chai Medical Building at Eu Tong Sen Street
Text Hee Limin
Photography Albert Lim K. S.
Cities are full of ghosts, as Paul Theroux once said - of people who have come and gone - and memories collected in nooks and crevices like dust. As Singapore strides boldly to re-make itself into a global city of the 21st century, these pools of memories have become our only links to times past which prevent us from suffering collective amnesia. One such little niche is perched precariously at the junction of the multi-laned Merchant Road and busy Eu Tong Sen Street - in quiet repose like a smooth rock within a turbulent stream. The Old Thong Chai Medical Hall stands steadfast and resolute within the landscape of change, but the grand old lady has been quietly transformed within to reveal some surprises
Built in 1892 in the traditional style of southern Chinese architecture, the building was the home of the Thong Chai Medical Institution, the first Chinese organization where free medical treatment was available to all - thong chai translated means "benevolent to all" - a symbol of the spirit of self-help rendered among the early Chinese settlers here. As a hub for the Chinese community, it was a meeting point and center of activities, also housing the Chinese guilds and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The original building was flanked by two longitudinal gable walls and was largely introverted, with an axial layout relieved by 2 internal courtyards and an air-well in between. Straight ridge friezes depicting Chinese scenery in relief plasterwork and the articulations of the gable-end walls in wave-like forms were the only embellishments on the exterior in the otherwise pragmatically laid-out building - after all, this was a building dedicated to serving the community of working migrants, and not the home of a rich middleclass merchant. However, the spatial richness of the building stems from the unveiling of its 3 main halls - the Entrance Hall, Middle Hall, and the Rear Hall, with a later addition of the rear building in the style of the then contemporary shop houses in Singapore. The longitudinal axis, which extends up to about 55m, strings out the hierarchical sequence of spaces typical of the southern Chinese courtyard house typology. The fenestrations on the original elevations - including those facing the courtyards, were small but well-proportioned and the eave-boards and fan-lights embodied examples of fine carving by artisan craftsmen of the time. The dou-gong roofing system used in the Middle Hall, the trussed rafters of the Rear Hall and the exposed rafters and purlins of the entrance hall provided rich changes in spatial textures as one progresses through the spaces. It is no wonder that the Old Thong Chai Building was one of the first monuments to be gazetted by the Preservation of Monuments Board in 1973.
The world shifted under its feet over the hundred or so years of re-development in the city. The hop houses and eating places of similar scale which used to surround the building were gone, and in its place, the Apollo Centre, a shopping centre, and the new hotel development across Merchant Road dwarfed the scale of the development.
Realizing the need to revitalize this building after the Thong Chai Medical Institution moved to its new premises at Chin Swee Road and the old building faded in presence and significance on the new commercial belt, the URA tendered the parcel out in 1993 on a 99-year lease. The current owner of this precious national monument, architect Chan Seng Kee, reminisces the old days when he used to visit the building with his father, and was ecstatic to be able to restore it to its former elegance and yet make it accessible still, to the public, albeit, perhaps at the cost of a nice dinner or a drink. Chan's view of the restoration was one in which the building should continue to be useful and relevant in the contemporary city, but yet retain its dignity and the fragile, intangible link to the past. The building had to be painstakingly restored to its original form, including replacing the deteriorating roof structure and tiles, restoring the sculptural elements via craftsmen flown in specially from China, and reinstating the original finishes to the interior and exterior surfaces. A new annex was also added facing Merchant Road to house services and ancillary functions. Chan, of course, installed also his new architectural office on the rear annex, staking the first claim on his restoration project, which won for his firm, Design Environment Group Architects, the URA Heritage Awards in 2000.
>> Food Culture
The building had its fair share of controversy in its new usage. Many who had fond memories of having gone to the medical hall in their younger days were somewhat aghast at the new use that had put to the building - as a pub at some point, instead of say, a museum or art gallery. Having had interested tenants who had proposed spas, pubs and a brothel - no less. (but this of course did not see the light of day), the establishment was only until recently rented out to Lan Kwai Fong Wine Bar but the business had since changed hands. Arguably, if we were to only convert our old buildings to museums or art galleries, there would certainly be a glut of these types, and the problem of staying relevant to food-loving Singaporeans (who do still sometimes visit museums) will remain. Now, the joint has become the swanky Asian Restaurant and Bar, serving Chinese cuisine in a French style (or is it Chinese restaurant with French cooking?) - but this at least keeps the joint on the mental map of food gourmets and the chi-chi crowds.
Although still very much understated on the outside, even slightly dowdy against the sleek glass constructions of the new MRT station on Eu Tong Sen Street, the grand old dame has had a glamour-makeover on the inside, by Poole Associates. The lovingly restored filigree woodcarvings over the entranceways are resplendent in the moody lighting of the night spot and are especially dramatic when viewed through the first courtyard (or La Cour - the watercourt - as it now named), casting its intricate shadows through to the inner walls of the Entrance Hall - as if the rich textures offered by the juxtaposition of stone, wood, water and palms are not enough. The high volume of the Middle Hall culminates with the exposed rafter and purlin system, under the high ridge of which the dramatic wooden carved couplets, donated by the grateful patients of the old medical hall, still command respect despite having to vie for attention with the chic electronic plasma screens of Le Bar. The open relationship of the courtyards to the spaces are retained by the new tenants, such that one can freely drift through from the first courtyard to the second - Le Jardin (the garden) to dine under the stars. Take the winding stairway upstairs, with the rather quaint vertical handrail, and one is in the main dining space, largely inward referencing because of the lack of windows here.
Indeed, the spaces of the old Thong Chai building are a world removed from the gray and bustle of its immediate urban context, and have the ability to project one's body and mind to a culture of a time passed - albeit history packaged to be consumed. Thus Chinese food served in tasting portions of a menu de gustation. Suitably, Jean-Philippe Trieu Van Lang, the founder of Asian Paris Restaurant, had ruminated that the restaurant be "...a place that people come in and feed their body, mind and soul...to come together to interact and rejuvenate their five senses." In the tradition of the Chinese healing place perhaps, but the potions are now dispensed in sleek French wine glasses.