Fort. This word evokes a feeling of war. Conflict perhaps.
Our little red dot is home to one such structure, built of course on a hill. That would be Fort Canning, named after a Viscount who was the governor general in 1861. It was originally envisioned as a defense position to protect the fledging colony, but the location was not exactly ideal. So if one reads the history of the place, one will find that it endured through periods of changing use.
Eventually it would become a hill with an underground operations base for the military, but that too would be disused. Today it is a public park that attracts locals and foreign visitors alike to the verdant grounds that hold a mix of colonial and pre-colonial treasures.
This essay will share with you how you can take in these sights in an hour.
Most visitors may find the use of the City Hall MRT (NS25 EW13) to be useful. And if you are coming from this direction as we did, head in the direction of the SMU along Stamford road. Alternatively come by the Fort Canning station (DT20). Those coming over from the Orchard side can also alight at Dhoby Ghaut station (NS24 CC1 NE6) that is served by three subway lines. With all that signage it is actually quite hard to miss, but if coming over from City Hall or Dhoby Ghaut, the hill is not so obvious.
Assuming you are now at the foot of the hill, it is time to consider the walk. And the Google map below is but just a suggestion base on our own walk: note that we were at Fort Canning rise,
And we started from Fort Canning Green. It is now a large grassy patch overlooked by an art centre of the same name.
Originally a Christian cemetery, it became the barracks of the British army. Today it is largely quiet, because it has become an event venue bursting to life only when it is leased out. Walk through the Gothic gate here, one of two here were the entrances to the former cemetery.
You can still see vestiges of its use as a cemetery if you walk along the wide stone steps that lead up the green to the now arts center. On both sides you will find plaques honoring the men who were buried in these grounds.
Just around the corner after the Gothic gate in the direction of the spice garden would be an archaeological exhibition site. You see, what we call today Fort Canning had a history well before the arrival of the British. For the island that is Singapore was already a thriving trading station in the 14th century if the records of a Yuan dynasty traveler is accurate.
In fact, this was the “forbidden hill”, or ‘Pancur’ in the Malay language. If one is really interested in the archaeological history of our little red dot, there are also significant finds from the Padang, Tanjong Katong and right beneath the St Andrew’s Cathedral! All the discovered items hail well back as far as 700 years ago.
But for buffs of more recent history, you will find the first of a series of 9-pounders on display. This one is located on the side of the art center. Of course these are not quite useful militarily, and was more for ceremonial purposes.
Did you know that the registry of marriages is also located here? Not far from Fort Canning green would be where couples seal their marital “contracts” in the witness of not just family but the state. Back in the day, Mel and Suan had a post marriage registration photo session here! Wow, how time has flown over the course of the last 20 years!
Well, time to move on.
We had come too early in the morning to view one of the main exhibits in the park. The Battlebox, a series of underground tunnels rooms was the command center of the British Army. Here, the fateful decision was made on 15th February of 1942 to surrender to the Japanese imperial army despite having a larger force than the invading forces…
Open from 9:30am, there are tours conducted throughout the day (including public holidays) though one would do well to look up the different timing of the tours – there are limited tours on Mondays.
Did we mention that the hill was also once the location of the British Army’s headquarters? Fort Canning hotel was the site of the military administration, and after independence the SAF (Singapore’s military) took over the premises in the 1960s and turned it into a college for senior officers. Today it has moved to the spanking new SAFTI institute in the west of Singapore.
Now one of the reasons the hill did not make a good fortification was the lack of ground water. Thus when the British army set up their HQ, a source of water was required to ensure that the site was self sufficient (at least for a period of time), hence a service reservoir was constructed and in place till today.
One cannot access it, but a walk towards it (at the top plateau of the hill) will reveal to you that the hill was once indeed a fort with walls and gates. Unfortunately the fort was demolished in 1907 and today only vestiges of the wall and a few gates remain.
A pathway along the service reservoir brings one to Raffles house, where the modern founder of the island built the first residence for governors of the colony. Today it is a bungalow that can be booked for events such as solemnization of marriage (remember the registry is just around the corner?).
Take some time to enjoy the views from this vantage point, for it is an expanse from which you can easily see the skyline of the modern city from verdant grounds.
We made our way back down the hill using the walk paths that wound down a little towards the former site of the Van Kleef aquarium and onward to Fort Canning MRT station. Today this aquarium is no more and only a tiny replica monument remains.
Our little island has transformed a lot. Much of what we saw as children will never be coming back.
Fort Canning however, keeps some of that alive as it has been conserved. Come here not just for a nice stroll, but also take in a little history. See how the city has transformed and continues to do so. Best of all it is free, except perhaps for the Battlebox…