A stroll through Pearl’s Hill City Park, an overlooked oasis in Chinatown, covers Singapore’s history, starting from its pre-war era.
BY CARA YAP
residing over Singapore’s Chinatown from atop Pearl’s Hill, the scaffolded Pearl Bank Apartments – a lone horse shoe-shaped building being redeveloped into luxury condominiums – exudes a forbidding air. Ascend a narrow staircase skirting the iconic apartments and you’ll find yourself in a nine-hectare sylvan space that few Singaporeans know of, despite its close proximity to the fast-paced CBD.
The inconspicuous spot crests Pearl’s Hill City Park that sits adjacent to a fortress-like structure fenced off by barbed wire. A source of vitality rather than fortification, sited here is the still-functioning Pearl’s Hill Service Reservoir that was built in 1898 to supply drinking water to Chinatown. It crowns its namesake knoll, formerly owned by the eponymous Captain James Pearl, who commanded the ship that sailed Sir Stamford Raffles to Singapore in 1819. Pearl gradually acquired the land, then home to gambier plantations, from its Chinese owners, but sold it to the government in 1828.
Though the area’s agricultural past is no longer evident, its verdant landscape, perched over the urban sprawl, evokes repose on the edge of the quotidian grind. From the imposing reservoir, the path coils downwards, cutting through the heart of the park, which is carved with pavilions, rest areas and lookout points, which lend views of Chinatown.
Some of the immediately visible landmarks include a tangle of shophouses distinguished by their terracotta roof tiles flanking the CBD, and the unblocked facade of the apartment blocks of Pearl’s Hill Terrace, once home to members of Singapore’s police force. Shaded by mature tembusu and bodhi trees, these pockets of calm – which include a pond with lotus plants – ring with the chitter of tropical birds and insects.
Wend your way down the flanks of Pearl’s Hill and you’ll stumble upon more historic sites. At its eastern foot is where the Chinese Pauper Hospital, built between 1844 and 1846, followed by the Seamen’s Hospital, once stood.
Looking up, its truncated appearance is apparent. This is the result of its top being cut off, after it was found to be taller than Fort Canning Hill, which was once home to the artillery, barracks and officers quarters. This meant that Pearl’s Hill could potentially be used by enemies to launch attacks on the fort. Here, at the end point of your journey down the vertical park, the hum and blare of traffic are once again audible.
While there are plans to link Pearl’s Hill City Park to the Singapore River as part of a green chain, the space today seems blissfully sequestered, yet intrinsically connected to the country’s past.
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