Letters of Life

A Great House of The Past

A Slice of Forgotten History

Like most of the great houses built in Singapore in the late 1800s, this house had a name—Panglima Prang, which means war admiral in Malay.

My earliest memories of the house go back to when I was five or six. It was the only house on a small road in River Valley called Jalan Kuala.

This is where my aunt, my mother’s second sister, lived with her husband, as did his father and grandfather before him. By the time of my early visits, Panglima Prang was already 116 years old, built during the time of my uncle’s great-grandfather, Tan Jiak Kim, grandson of Chinese philanthropist Tan Kim Seng. There was apparently a time when the address of the house simply read, Left side, Singapore River, because the property rolled all the way to the warehouses by the river’s edge.

To accomodate the different generations and families, there were several wings around the main house, one of which was occupied by my aunt and uncle.Ā  It was a large two-storey annexe, with terracotta stone floors in the living room and kitchen and long wooden floorboards above. In this multi-generational family, meals cooked on charcoal stoves were prepared by domestics who served the meals on large round marble-topped tables. I was always fascinated by the stuffed deer heads mounted on the walls above which seemed to watch as I ate rice and minced pork in soya sauce.

The wide raised patio bordering the great room of the mansion

My uncle, who passed away early this week at the age of 78 after a long illness, grew up here. He told me that when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942, the soldiers saw a very large altar at the front of the main house (of which I have little recollection), full of joss sticks and incense and ancestral worship paraphernalia. Being superstitious, the Japanese decided to leave the property alone.

I never knew the historical significance of this house, ironically one of the most significant places of my childhood and memory. It might not have occurred to the grownups then, or even now, to have passed on local historical fact to the next generation.

It was only in the last few years that when probed, my uncle or aunt would answer my questions about Jalan Kuala, as we referred to the residence. It was as if they associated the place with something sordid rather than with something marvelously rose-tinted.

My uncle was a strong-willed man, with a loud commanding voice. Even when he spoke softly, the commanding tone never left. He loved numbers, the proof of which was the way he wrote them in a beautiful hand, scriptlike, and he would often tell me how he remembered phone numbers and postal codes based on the patterns he saw in or associated with them.

One image of the Jalan Kuala house which is forever seared in my memory is that of the great room. The photo above shows a well-lit room, with European furniture, portraits and tall vases. But that is a styled shot to be published in a book about historical houses in Singapore built in the late 1800s.

I remember afternoons spent peaking into this vast dim room, the louvered doors shuttered against the aging light of day.

The great room or ancestral hall became a repository for white elephants, almost literally. An oil portrait of Tan Jiak Kim (1859--1917) dominates the room. The smaller one on the left is of Tan Kim Seng. The carpet was holed and faded, and the wooden music boxes that reached my waist didn't work. But the dancing figures under the glass looked like they longed to move in their prescribed circles once again.

I knelt down to peer under tables only to find elephant tusks and ostrich eggs strewn there, like a child’s forgotten toys. It was not a room a nine-year-old wanted to linger in alone, even on a sunny afternoon, for the antelopes on the walls and the tiger skin rugs threatened to come alive and the grim faces of the ancestors darkly painted scolded, rather than smiled.

When I was about ten or twelve, my brother and I decided to explore the grounds.

We climbed up a grassy slope and discovered a World War Two bunker rising out of a grassy mound, hidden among the trees. We were out of sight of the house where my aunt was sitting marking her students’ books, and the cicadas were singing harshly and loudly. I did not dare go near the dark moss-covered bunker, its concrete bulk manifesting an alien presence in the sun-dappled glen.

In the early 20th century, the property, at its largest, spanned about 430,000 sq feet, or seven-and-a-half American football fields. Parcels of it were sold off through the decades. By the early 1980s, the house and remaining tract of land was sold to a private developer to pay off a family debt. My uncle and his five siblings and families moved out and bought their own properties and no longer lived together again.

If you want to know how big the grounds were, all you have to do is visit a condo called Yong An Park on River Valley Road. For some reason, I never have.

If you too have memories of historical houses, do leave your thoughts here.

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12 Responses »

  1. i LOVED this time travel post! i felt like i was there. the only problem is, now i want more. šŸ˜€

  2. Thank you, Lauren, I appreciate your taking the time to read it all the way through. Noted your wanting more, and will have to think up more posts on time travel/nostalgia!

  3. That’s a terrific writeup about Jalan Kuala! Reading about it brought back vivid, pleasant memories for me as I often visited A. Choo and U. Ed who lived there when they married in January 1961 till they moved out I think around the early 1980’s.

    Your Mum

  4. Dear Ming, thanks for this great article.
    I was wondering if you or someone you know could help me with the names of Jiak Kim’s sons. My aunt helps to take care of the Tan Kim Seng ancestral home in Malacca and she would like to trace her branch of the Tan family. We only know the name of the eldest son Tan Soo Bin. From what I know, Jiak Kim has 2 other sons. would very much appreciated your assistance. we might be related somehow… : )

    • Hi Sherman, how interesting! Which part of the Tan family is your aunt in?

    • Hi Sherman,

      I have the ancestral records entitled ā€œę”ƒęŗč±å±±é™³ę°ę—č­œā€. This zupu (ꗏ譜) covers from the progenitor down to generation 19. TAN Jiak Kim (é™³č‹„éŒ¦) is at generation 19 (generation ē¤½). His three sons recorded therein are eldest é™³ę€é , second é™³ę€ę• and the third é™³ę€å­.

      Philip Tan

  5. FYI, the portrait of Tan Soo Bin above the doorway in the picture of the room is Venetian enamel mosaic made by Salviati & Co. It’s now in the Peranakan Museum.

  6. I am giving a talk on Furniture at the Peranakan Museum. There are several items from Panglima Prang there. May I plse use your pic of the ancestral hall along with your comment on it. Can you give me a rough date when the colour photo was taken?

    • You can use the image off my blog, though it is just a snapshot of a page in a book that belongs to my aunt who used to live there. I estimate that the picture was taken in the late 1960s-early ’70s, but I would have to check with my aunt if you need anything more accurate.

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  1. Panglima Prang, a Great House of the Past « THINGS YOUR MOTHER THROW(S) | Vintage furniture ~ Mid Century Modern ~ Art Deco ~ Antiques ~ Bespoke

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