You might not realise it, but Singapore has a community of Jews that have links to our past.
They are hard to come by these days because of their relatively small community size, and their homes are scattered across the island, but in the past they lived in Singapore’s Jewish Quarters.
Don’t know where that is? Well, you would have probably walked through Singapore’s old Jewish Quarters many times without realising it.
Situated in the area around Middle/Prinsep/Wilkie/Adis roads, the Jewish Quarter was called the mahallah (Arabic for ‘place’). It was literally the place where Singapore’s Jewish community gathered to live, socialise, and buy Jewish products like kosher meats, for example.
Here is what we learnt about the mahallah on a recent tour organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) for the Singapore Heritage Festival.
Little remnants of the old Jewish Quarters
Niven Road looks like any other shophouse-lined street in Singapore, except that there are remnants of its past as a Jewish enclave here.
Look closely and you might find a tiny clue in the form of a mezuzah, a decorative case containing a scroll (klaf) with verses from the Torah, the religious text central to the practice of Judaism.
Jewish households affix the mezuzah to their doorposts as a reminder of their religious commitments.
Some houses along Niven Road still have mezuzahs affixed to their front doors (like the one above). Take your time to check them out, but remember not to disturb the occupants.
One hill, two villas
Mount Sophia was home to two prominent mansions long ago.
The Adis Lodge (owned by Jewish stockbroker Nassim Nassim Adis) was built in 1907 and was as palatial as palaces went at that time. It was so grand that it was called “one of the most magnificent mansions east of Suez”
Adis later sold the mansion to famed Chinese businessman Eu Tong Sen, who tore down the mansion and built Eu Villa. The Villa cost a purported million dollars to construct.
Eu Villa was just one of the monumental buildings that Eu commissioned in Singapore. The others were the Great Southern Hotel (which houses the Yue Hwa emporium today) and Majestic Theatre, both located in Chinatown.
Legend has it that Eu shared the same birthday as the Chinese patron deity of construction and was advised to build big construction projects so as to prolong his life.
Mind the GAP
Fashion brands GAP and Superdry familiar names to the Singaporean consumer, but few know the connection they have with the regal yet unassuming Sophia Flats:
This block of apartment units was where Frank Benjamin (the founder of FJ Benjamin which imports brands such as GAP and Superdry) first opened his stationery shop before he moved into to the fashion business.
A home in the past, an elderly home now
Stroll up Wilkie Road and you’ll arrive at the former home of Abdullah Shooker, a well known Jewish businessman.
Abdullah and his wife did not have any children, hence their wealth was put in a trust for charitable work here in Singapore and Palestine.
The house where Abdullah and his wife lived in was refurbished, and is currently occupied by the Abdullah Shooker Jewish Welfare Home, an old age home for elderly Jews in Singapore.
Of course throughout our history, there were many prominent Jews who played huge roles in the Singapore story.
Two of them are Jacob Ballas and David Marshall. The former was a successful stockbroker and philanthropist, while the latter was Singapore’s first chief minister.
Both grew up in the mahallah but as time went by, their homes gave way to development.
Ballas’ home is now a little green island bounded by Wilkie, Sophia, and Niven Road, while Marshall’s home has given way to the development of Wilkie Edge.
Top photo by Joshua Lee and from here