If it wasn’t for a leaf and a nut, Singapore would not be what it is today, and I learned this by looking at Emerald Hill Road. This history starts with the introduction of colonialism to Singapore in 1819, connecting the small tropical island with the European economy. Once the profitable relationship with the East India Company became available, colonizers and Chinese Immigrants alike took to the disastrous task of deforestation to satiate the demand for gambier leaves and nutmeg seeds. By fitting in the middle of three distinct periods, the history of Emerald Hill represents how suburban Singapore is connected to the colonial origins of the nation through agricultural deforestation, suburbanization, and urbanization.
How Agriculture Shaped Singapore
Gambier leaves and nutmeg is what first brought Singapore into its outsized Southeast Asia leadership role. Both crops were phenomenally valuable for international trade at the time, and they helped define Singapore’s physical landscape and international identity. The crops helped make Britain wealthy, and elevating the interior significance of Singapore as its port served a link between India and China (source). By the 1830s, the number of goods moving through its port overtook Jakarta, making it the regional trading center.
Part of what made Nutmeg so valuable was an economic bubble known as “nutmeg mania.” During the boom, many colonizers and Chinese landowners became very wealthy, but the bubble was never sustainable. Eventually, prices plunged with excess supply, then a disease-carrying beetle-killed all of the island’s nutmeg trees. Emerald Hill itself was a nutmeg farm, run by colonialist William Cuppage. He started running the farm in 1837, but it would take nine years to start turning a profit on the crops, and not long after the nutmeg farm failed, and it was converted into a fruit farm (pg. 2). Gambier is a woody vine unique to Southeast Asia, and it too was an incredible cash crop. The leaves are steamed by boiling water to produce gambier extract, which can be used for chewing with areca nut, for leather tanning and for the production of brown dye, (wiki). The latter two functions of gambier had a lucrative market in the British economy, but it came at a great cost.
Gambier Farming Fueled Deforestation
Singapore’s Gambier farming had an unspeakably greatest impact on the island’s environment. Gambier was being produced from the very early days of the colony, the 1820s up until the 1850s. At its peak, over 600 plantations were operating across the island. (NTU). However, the excessive gambier farming practices depleted the land of its nutrients, making the soil inert after just 15 to 20 years (NLB). To make matters worse for every acre of land cleared for farming, an equivalent acre of the forest would be cut down to fuel the gambier production. As early as 1843, the dramatic effects were noted by J.T. Thomson, who described the sizable Tanglin area as like, “barren-looking hills covered with short brushwood and lallang,” (pg 1). By 1859, an estimated thirty percent of the island had been documented as abandoned (source). Nearly three quarters of Singapore’s plants and animal life have been lost since the British first introduced colonialism, and all of it for short-term economic prosperity (NLB).
Emerald Hill’s History Post-Deforestation
The British East India Company helped pay for the destruction of Singapore’s tropical forest to make a profit on spices and brown dye. When the farming stopped being profitable, the deforested land became prime housing for the residential elites. Emerald Hill is a sterling example of this transition.
When Cuppage moved to his 36-acre estate, he built two houses in 1851 and 1861, (pg. 2). Once he passed away in 1872, his three daughters sold the estate to his son-in-law, Edwin Keok, who held onto the estate as a countryside getaway until bankruptcy in 1891 to Thomas Rowell, another wealthy colonizer, (pg. 3). The estate was broken up along the way, and eventually modern Emerald Hill would move on from Rowell to two wealthy Chinese merchants in 1900, Seah Boon Kang and Seah Eng Kiat. By this time, there was a flood of demand for suburban housing, and that’s exactly what the Seah brothers would capitalize on. They developed Emerald Hill Road and divided it into 112 different lots for individual development.
Suburban Architectural Form
It was in the early 20th Century that Emerald Hill began to resemble how it is today. The construction of opulent shophouses coincided with the eventual demolition of all 19th-century structures on site. The majority of developers for the new Emerald Hill homes were Teochew straits-born Chinese, while Peranakan tenants represented the plurality of residents among the community of Hokkiens, Teochews, Hainanese, and Cantonese, as well as a few other communities.
While the site transitioned from the British to the Chinese aristocracy, the colonial legacy is not lost in the built environment. The new buildings still pay homage through the implementation of European ornamentation, as Corinthian columns and Western forms became an important status symbol in a colony whose mandate is built on the premise of asserting white supremacy through lifestyle, (pg 2).
Modern-Day Emerald Hill
The Emerald Hill Road of today hardly resembles what it once was. For one matter, the road is no longer connected to the main Orchard Road for vehicles, a symptom of Singapore’s ‘all or nothing’ approach to vehicle rights versus pedestrianization. Otherwise, though several of the shophouses are being actively conserved by the government, the majority of homes are still lived in. Its legacy as a street for the wealthy remains alive to this day.
Despite the beauty of the early 20th century shophouses, I found the 1950’s era construction by the end of the road most interesting from an architectural perspective. The little information I could dig up on Blocks 150-156 was still revealing of its significance. Hopefully, more information about the intentions behind the design is hiding somewhere, but here’s what I could find.
Block 150-156 is a unique architectural masterpiece by Wong Foo Nam, a local architect trained by SIT General Manager J.M. Fraser. Constructed in the 1950s or early 1960s, little information is available about the building, though it is likely a private housing complex. The concrete screen does resemble those seen at the Dakota Crescent, a public housing estate developed by the SIT.
Across from Block 150-156 are a couple of glassy condominium buildings with sizable car park entrances. The suburban nature of the area is underscored by the prevalence of car ownership in the area. Their scale exhibits the demand for living along Orchard Road as a vital historic connection between Singapore City and the heartlands, and how the forces of suburbanization that started in the 20th century have escalated in intensity during the 21st Century.
I am sure that the connection between Singapore’s deforestation and the modern challenges of climate change are not lost on you. I also want to make this story a case for the preservation of architectural heritage. It would be hard to relate this story without these buildings. Researching this aspect of Emerald Hill was the first time I felt I could appreciate the scale of Singapore’s mass deforestation, and the first time an implicit reality became real for me. Emerald Hill has come to represent for me the challenge of admitting that society still benefits from the unjust power structures built during our colonial past.