Pearl’s Hill is an enclave in the Outram area bounded by the Central Expressway, Outram Road, Eu Tong Sen Street and Upper Cross Street.1 Initially the location of Chinese-owned gambier plantations, the hill was first called Mount Stamford, after Sir Stamford Raffles. Its current name is taken from Captain James Pearl, owner and commander of the Indiana, the ship in which Raffles sailed from Penang in January 1819 on the expedition that culminated in the founding of Singapore.2 Colonial institutional buildings located here have included the Seamen’s Hospital (predecessor of the Singapore General Hospital), the first Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Outram Prison (also known as H. M. Jail), and the Upper and Lower Barracks of the Sikh contingent of the Straits Settlements Police.3
In the early days of Singapore, the yet unnamed hill was the location of gambier plantations owned by the Chinese, some of whom had occupied and settled there before the arrival of Raffles in 1819. Captain Pearl had been looking to settle down in Singapore, and, liking the look of the hill, began acquiring plot after plot on the hill from the gambier planters until he owned the entire hill in 1822. Pearl then built his house atop the hill, and Chinese and Malay workmen cleared the slopes and grew pepper vines for him.4
Pearl called the hill Mount Stamford, as a compliment to Raffles. However, when Raffles heard how the hill had been acquired without his approval, he ordered its repossession by the government. Although Raffles quickly relented and accorded ownership of the hill back to Pearl, the disgruntled captain renamed the hill after himself after the incident. In 1828, Pearl’s agents sold the hill to the government for Rs 10,000 (Indian rupees) after Pearl retired to Europe, but his name has remained associated with this hill.5
At the eastern foot of Pearl’s Hill, the Chinese Pauper Hospital (present-day Tan Tock Seng Hospital) was designed and built by John Turnbull Thomson from 1844 to 1846. Next to the hospital, from 1844 to 1845, Thomson had also designed and built Seamen’s Hospital, the fourth general hospital in Singapore. The hospital buildings at Pearl’s Hill were commandeered in 1858 by the government and military authorities as temporary barracks for the European Artillery Corps, brought to Singapore from India to man Fort Canning after the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Consequently, the Chinese Pauper Hospital (CPH) moved to Balestier Plain and the Seamen’s Hospital moved to the Kandang Kerbau district. The European Artillery stayed at the Pearl’s Hill barracks until Fort Canning and its barracks were constructed in 1861. It was only upon the completion of Fort Canning that authorities discovered that Pearl’s Hill overlooked Fort Canning Hill from a greater height. In order to ensure that enemies could not attack Fort Canning from Pearl’s Hill, the chief engineer cut off the top of Pearl’s Hill with the help of a Chinese coolie force.6
The barracks on Pearl’s Hill were used for some years as the Commissariat Store and Arsenal, and then as barracks for the European police (1908) and Sikh police (1914). By the late 1920s, the barracks consisted of about 13 separate blocks, erected nearly 100 years earlier, and housed unmarried Sikh policemen, while married Sikh policemen lived in wooden sheds at the corner of Havelock Road. In the early 1930s, the Straits Settlements government embarked on one of the most extensive facilities building schemes in the history of the Singapore Police Force. By 1934, the new Upper Barracks were erected on the original site of CPH on Pearl’s Hill Terrace to house the married Sikh policemen. Meanwhile, the new Lower Barracks were built at Eu Tong Sen Street over part of the People’s Park that had been acquired specifically to house the non-married Sikh policemen. Both barracks were designed in the neo-classical style that was popular in the 1930s for major government buildings and were constructed with reinforced concrete.
The five-storey Lower Barracks was an imposing sight in its time as it towered over the low-rise shophouses in Chinatown, which were mostly two or three storeys high. The three-storey Upper Barracks was one of the longest pre-war civic buildings at 160 m in length. Being perched higher on the hill, the Upper Barracks dominated the Chinatown landscape at a time when skyscrapers were yet to be built in the vicinity. The Upper and Lower Barracks served as the quarters of the Sikh contingent until the latter was disbanded in 1946.
Following Singapore’s independence in 1965, the Ministry of Interior and Defence (predecessor of the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Home Affairs) was housed in the Upper Barracks until the late 1970s. In 1948, the Police Radio Division moved into the Lower Barracks and the top floor was used to house the Operations Room. For years, police response to public calls and emergencies was coordinated from Pearl’s Hill. Both barracks were occupied by government agencies until 2001, when its last occupants – the Singapore Police Force (Upper Barracks) and the Criminal Investigation Department (Lower Barracks) – moved to New Phoenix Park at Irrawaddy Road and the new Police Cantonment Complex at New Bridge Road, respectively. Both barracks were put up for lease in 2007 as office space and gazetted as conservation buildings in 2008.
Completed in 1976, the 38-storey Pearl Bank Apartments, with its unique horse-shoe shaped design, was then the tallest residential building in Singapore. Designed by pioneering post-Independence Singapore architect Tan Cheng Siong, it was located at Pearl Bank Road, on the government’s first land-sales site launched exclusively for residential development in 1969. Tan was charged to fit the maximum number of apartments within the small triangular hill-top site. As a result, Pearl Bank Apartments houses the largest number of units contained in a single block in Singapore – 280 apartments and eight commercial units.8
In 2018, Pearl Bank Apartments was sold to property developer CapitaLand – its fourth en bloc attempt – for $728 million, despite appeals by some residents and its architect to accord the development conservation status. CapitaLand said that it intends to redevelop the site into a residential development.9
Tucked behind Pearl Bank Apartments, on a 45-metre-tall knoll, is a belt of lush greenery called Pearl’s Hill City Park. Perched on the hilltop park is a medieval fortress-like structure which is the Pearl’s Hill Reservoir, a high-level service reservoir built in 1898 to supply drinking water to Chinatown. Today, it remains the main source of freshwater to Chinatown and is one of 13 service reservoirs in Singapore gazetted under the Protected Areas and Protected Places Act (Chapter 256).10 There is a future plan for Pearl’s Hill City Park to be transformed into a hilltop and mid-level park. The mid-level park will form part of a green chain linking Duxton Plain Park through Pearl’s Hill and York Hill to the Singapore River.11
Prison and park
The western slope of Pearl’s Hill once housed the infamous Outram Prison, or H. M. Jail. Built in 1847 by Charles Edward Faber based on plans by J. T. Thomson, the prison was demolished in 1968 and replaced by Outram Park, a residential-cum-shopping complex built by the Housing and Development Board in 1969.12 This complex was later demolished under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme, with residents and shopkeepers relocated to Cantonment Road in 2001.13
After it was taken over by the municipality in 1889, there was an open space at the foot of Pearl’s Hill on Eu Tong Sen Street. It was then the only public park apart from the Esplanade. It later became the People’s or Pearl’s Market with outdoor stalls, but the market was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1966. The People’s Park Complex, built in 1970, stands on this site today.14
Pearl’s Hill Care Home
On 28 September 2016, Pearl’s Hill Care Home officially began operation on Pearl’s Hill. It was refurbished from a school (formerly Pearl’s Hill School) and is Singapore’s first government-run nursing home for seniors to recuperate before eventually returning to their homes.15
Chinese names: chin-chu sua in Hokkien and chan chὒ shan in Cantonese, both literally mean “Pearl Hill”.16
1. Tee Hun Ching, “A Hidden Emerald,” Straits Times, 29 June 2003, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Harold Frank Pearson, People of Early Singapore (London: University of London, 1955), 47–49. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PEA-[HIS]); Survey Department Singapore, Singapore Street Directory and Guide (April 1957): 13. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN-[RFL])
3. Tee, “A Hidden Emerald”; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, eds., One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 494–95. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
4. Survey Department Singapore, Singapore Street Directory and Guide, 13; Pearson, People of Early Singapore, 47–52.
5. Survey Department Singapore, Singapore Street Directory and Guide, 13; Pearson, People of Early Singapore, 47–52.
6. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 494–95; John Hall-Jones and Christopher Hooi, An Early Surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853 (Singapore: National Museum, 1979), 62–63. (Call no. RSING 526.90924 THO); Survey Department Singapore, Singapore Street Directory and Guide, 13; “Tan Tock Seng’s Hospital,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 11 March 1897, 2; “When Lepers Roamed Singapore Streets,” Straits Times, 5 May 1956, 9. (From NewspaperSG); Malcolm H. Murfett, et al., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2011), 85. (Call no. RSING 355.0095957 BET)
7. “Governor Opens the New Sikh Police Barracks,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 20 December 1934, 2; “Big Police Programme,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 23 May 1929, 8 (From NewspaperSG); “Pearl’s Hill,” Urban Redevelopment Authority, accessed 20 July 2018; Robert L. Jarman, ed., Annual Reports of the Straits Settlements 1855–1941, vol. 6 (Slough, UK: Archive Editions, 1998), 81, 567. (Call no. RSING 959.51 STR-[AR]); Survey Department, Singapore, Singapore Street Directory and Guide (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, April 1957), 13. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN-[RFL])
8. Calvin Low, “The Puzzle on Pearl’s Hill,” Straits Times, 2 September 2006, 16; Desmond Ng, “Ugly Monster,” New Paper, 30 April 2007, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Lynette Khoo, “Iconic Pearl Bank Apartments Sold to CapitaLand for S$728 Million,” Straits Times, 14 February 2018.
9. Khoo, “Iconic Pearl Bank Apartments Sold”; Janice Tai, “Pearl Bank Apartments Likely to Be Demolished despite Calls to Conserve Building,” Straits Times, 17 February 2018.
10. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Outram Planning Area: Planning Report (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1995), 7. (Call no. RSING 711.4095957 SIN); Tee, “Hidden Emerald”; Teo Cheng Wee and Melissa Lee, “Singapore Nostalgia in One Day,” Straits Times, 18 February 2007, 53 (From NewspaperSG); Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 328–29; Protected Places (No. 4) Order 2006, Sp. S 43/2006. Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 2006. (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS)
11. “Planning for the Future,” Straits Times, 29 June 2003, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
12.Ray K. Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 184. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Tee, “Hidden Emerald”; Survey Department, Singapore, Singapore Street Directory and Guide, 19.
13. “More Flats for Hilly Outram,” Straits Times, 19 March 2003, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 185.
15. “Pearl’s Hill Care Home,” Vanguard Healthcare Pte Ltd., accessed 4 July 2017; Janice Tai, “First Govt-Run Nursing Home Aims to Push Boundaries,” Straits Times, 29 September 2016, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
16. H. W. Firmstone, Chinese Names of Streets and Places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42 (February 1905): 120–21. (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS)
The information in this article is valid as at 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.