#1: Oldest skyscraper
Depends who you’re talking to. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary helpfully describes a skyscraper as ‘a very tall building’; in 1939, our first very tall building, The Cathay, was only eight floors high. In 2006, it was sexed up into a modern glass-and-metal beast but retained its original art-deco façade. Our oldest un-renovated skyscraper is technically the old block of the Bank of China Building, built in 1954 with a whopping 18 floors (the new block has 36).
Where: The Cathay (2 Handy Road) & Bank of China Building (4 Battery Road)
#2: Oldest man-made Structure
A wooden bridge marks what’s left of Parit Singapura, the ‘Moat of Singapore’. The moat was mentioned in The Malay Annals (a literary work that traces the origins and descent of Malay royalty), and its existence corroborated by a British map of 1825, which shows along modern Stamford Road an ‘earthen rampart…on the north side of this rampart was a stream’.
Where: Wooden bridge next to Raffles House (Fort Canning Park)
#3: Oldest mall
Founded in 1932, C.K. Tang is the oldest surviving retail business and development in Singapore, although the original establishment was demolished in 1975 to construct the Dynasty Hotel (now the Singapore Marriott Hotel) and shopping complex in its place. It’s hard to imagine this household name began with enterprising hawker Tang Choon Kheng from Swatow, China – popularly known as ‘Curio King’ – peddling his embroidered linen wares all over Singapore. Tang built his business on the humble principles of honesty and integrity.
Where: Tangs (310 & 320 Orchard Road)
#4: Oldest example of our State motto
When you enter Victoria Theatre, on the left-hand stairwell landing, our state motto – otherwise known as Majulah Singapura (or ‘Onward Singapore’) – shines through the dust. Zubir Said (who also wrote songs for the 1958 Malay film Blood of Pontianak) used these words as a starting point to compose an anthem that would celebrate Singapore’s conferred city status by King George VI and replace ‘God Save the Queen’.
Where: Victoria Theatre (9 Empress Place)
#5: Oldest Chinese Chamber of Commerce in South-East Asia
The attempt to fuse architectural details like the red colonnades and stone lions with a regular Western edifice renders this building a Far Eastern confusion. However, pay attention to the dragon mural flanking the gateway – the first replica porcelain nine-dragon wall in Singapore. While the original two-storey building was replaced in 1963, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry stands as a timeless guardian of Chinese customs and business values. During one visit, it even played host to a Sikh wedding ceremony.
Where: Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (47 Hill Street; MRT: City Hall)
#6: Oldest painted façade
The faded Peranakan shophouse at 66 Spottiswoode Park is a quaint anomaly in a row of better-restored neighbours. Though in lacklustre condition, its façade is the oldest surviving one and an original (still intact) to boot – a rarity in these parts. This gem in the rough was only discovered last year when the coat of whitewash that was stupidly painted over it (for reasons unknown) began to chip, hence its excellent preservation. Not much is known about the origin of this piece of history, apart from the fact that it dates back to approximately the 1880s. But the images of three magpies in terracotta red and blue, symbolising love, joy and good fortune, are truly a sight and unexpected treasure to behold.
Where: 66 Spottiswoode Park (MRT: Outram Park)
National Museum of Singapore
#7: Oldest kramat
Bite your tongue and swallow your Kermit jokes – a kramat is a holy Islamic tomb (the word is derived from ‘keramat’, which denotes a kind of miracle-working ability) of a holy Islamic saint. The oldest kramat belongs to Radin Ayu Mas, which translates as the Princess of Golden Beauty. Buried at the foot of Mount Faber, the legend tells the sad story of the brother of a sultan and his marriage to a common palace dancer. When the Sultan finds out, he sets Pangeran’s house on fire in his absence. The mother perishes in the flames, but a child named Radin Mas is rescued. The little princess and her father leave Java for Singapore only to be torn apart once again – in the final chapter of the tragedy, Radin Mas dies in her father’s arms after being accidentally stabbed with a kris (a dagger indigenous to Indonesia) by an evil Tengku (prince).
Where: Mount Faber Road (Tel: 6270 8855 MRT: HarbourFront)
#8: Oldest theatre
While most would assume the Yangtze Theatre – known for its racy and exotic XXX-rated movies – to be the oldest, the Capitol Theatre was erected way before the Yangtze hit puberty (for the record, it was opened in 1977). Built in 1929, the Capitol Theatre, a neo-classical curio, was previously a theatre for rambunctious cabaret performances until the Shaw Brothers turned it into its flagship cinema in 1946. Besides catering to the appetites of cinemagoers, there was also the Capitol Restaurant located in the Blue Room – not a hall for sexual content, but a beautiful function room with high ceilings and a zodiac mosaic that decorated the interior of its dome. The cinema, with its 1,686 seats, gave patrons the choice of gallery, stalls and circle seats. Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s list of heritage buildings, the cinema lowered its curtains in 1998 after screening the futuristic thriller Soldier, which starred Kurt Russell.
Where: Junction of North Bridge Road and Stamford Road (MRT: City Hall)
#9: Oldest museum
In colonial days, the National Museum of Singapore was known as the Raffles Library and Museum, a repository for prized zoological, ethnographical and archaeological collections (or conquests) of South-East Asia, most of which have been forwarded on to NUS and other museums abroad. Today, the building, redeveloped at a cost of $132.6 million, includes a stunning glass-clad extension that pays tribute to the island’s nation-building history without neglecting modern art and culture. Do look out for one of its oldest artefacts, the Singapore Stone (currently on display at the Singapore History Gallery). This originally stood as part of a larger boulder at the entrance of the Singapore River and bears the earliest inscription (a variant of an old Sumatran script) found here – a significant relic of this island’s pre-colonial history, which has been variously dated from the 10th to 14th centuries.
Where: National Museum of Singapore (93 Stamford Road)