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Published: January 2nd 2020
One of the (many) things I love about Singapore is the interesting architecture of the modern buildings and the careful conservation of historic buildings. And some of the historic buildings have remarkable stories attached to them.
Most people, if they are at all familiar with Orchard Road, think of it as one long concourse of conspicuous consummation. It is all that, and then some. Huge malls connect underground to other huge malls that connect to other huge malls via skybridges. But along the way, there are a few spots where you can still see what things looked like in Singapore’s past.
I went out this morning looking for one of these conserved buildings that I had read about, 14 Orchard Road, which had been the home of Malayan Motors.
But before I got there though, I came across The Cathay. It looks like an old Art Deco movie theater, but then you notice the Jeff Koons inspired balloon sculpture of a dog, and then you notice the balloon turd, sitting behind the balloon dog. Since The Cathay is right next to the Singapore School of the Arts, I decided to go closer.
The Cathay has an interesting
history. Opened in 1939 with a 1,300 seat air-conditioned cinema, the first air-conditioned building in Singapore; it was a tech marvel, and a very popular place in sub-tropical Singapore. The building also offered a dance hall and restaurant. The following year an attached eleven story apartment block opened, making The Cathay the first skyscraper in Singapore, and so tall it was used as a landmark for the approach to Kallang Airport.
When WWII broke out, The Cathay was turned into a Red Cross emergency room. When Singapore fell to the Japanese, the Japanese used it to broadcast propaganda. After the war it served as the headquarters of Admiral Lord Mountbatten, and a year later it again became a movie theater.
The outside of the building was designated a national monument in 2003, and the rest of the building was demolished and rebuilt as a modern movie house, along with exhibit space and shopping, and, of course, a Starbucks.
As I was sitting in the Starbucks with my iced coffee, I looked out the window and saw an unusual scalloped gable that looked familiar. It had big initials – MDIS – across the top. But could it
be? Could this be the old Malayan Motors building?
14 Orchard Road is now part of the campus of the Management Development Institute of Singapore, a private college, but it started life in 1927 as the showroom of Malayan Motors. Malayan Motors was owned by the Wearnes brothers, who also sold cars in Penang.
This building, with its big windows to let in natural light, had its showroom in the second floor which was accessed via a ramp. Rolls Royces, Rovers, Studebakers, and Morrises were sold here, with the last sale taking places in 1980.
It wasn’t just automobiles that interested the Wearnes brothers, though. In 1929 they bought an Avro-Avian bi-plane, had it assembled by Malayan Motors mechanics, and then displayed it in their showroom. In 1937, the brothers launched the Wearnes Air Service linking Singapore, Penang, and Kuala Lumpur. The Second World War brought an end to the airline, and it didn’t fly again after the war. Possibly useful information:
• The MDIS building is directly across from the Dhoby Gaut MRT station. The Cathay is located on Handy Road, at the intersection with Orchard Road.
• The former showroom Wearnes Automotive
in Penang is at 1 Jalan Penang and is now a nightclub.
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