Joseph Aaron Elias
Joseph Aaron Elias (b. 1881, Calcutta, India–d. 16 July 1949, Singapore), also known as Joe Elias, was a successful entrepreneur and well-known personality in Singapore’s Jewish community. He held offices as a justice of peace and municipal commissioner of Singapore. Elias Road and Amber Road were named after his family.1
Born in Calcutta, India, Elias was the eldest of Aaron and Sarina Elias’s seven children. His father had amassed considerable wealth from the opium trade. In 1902, Aaron Elias passed away from cancer, and Joe Elias, then aged 21, was thrust into the role of head of the household.2
Fortunately, Joe proved to be particularly adept and entrepreneurial. The family grew richer from investments in stocks and real estate. Elias was a man of diverse business interests. He established a company named Tampenis Cement Tile Works Ltd, which manufactured flooring tiles and imitation marble. He later sold off the company when competition from the Chinese grew keen. He was also the director and investor of other businesses such as rubber and tin-mining, including Pajan Rubber Plantation, Indragiri Rubber Estate, Kuchai Tin Mines and Linguis Tin Mines.3
Elias later established a refrigeration business known as Fresh Food and Refrigerator Co. Ltd. The firm had its refrigerator, ice-work and warehouse at the docks of Keppel Harbour. To complement his refrigeration business, Elias started a retail store that rivalled Cold Storage on Orchard Road. Although known for its excellent service, price-cutting and the Great Depression saw the company’s profits dip. It was eventually sold to Cold Storage in 1931.4
In addition, Elias was involved in the newspaper business. He was a director of the Malaya Tribune, a newspaper known for its hard-hitting editorials.5 The erstwhile Pavilion Cinema on Orchard Road (where Orchard Gateway now stands) was also another one of his business enterprises.6
In 1918, Joseph Elias was named a justice of peace, and in 1920 was appointed municipal commissioner, a position he served continuously, disrupted only by World War II. He was made a trustee of the Singapore Improvement Trust in 1927 and the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in 1929. Elias was also part of the Housing Commission whose 1918 report was then considered the most comprehensive survey of Singapore’s current and future housing needs.7
Elias was a horse-racing and motoring enthusiast. One of the first to import racehorses into Singapore, he was instrumental in suggesting that a racecourse be built at Bukit Timah. At one point, he had around 35 horses in his stable on Grange Road. Elias was also frequently seen driving his open-top sports car around the city.8
Buildings and streets named after the Elias family
Joe Elias formed the Singapore Building Corporation, which built Amber Mansions, one of the earliest blocks of flats in Singapore. Named after his family clan name, Amber Mansions was built in 1921 at the corner of Penang Lane and Orchard Road. At the time, Amber Mansions introduced a new and innovative concept to building design and use. The complex housed a shopping arcade on the ground level, with residential apartments above and an inner court where children could play. Many Jewish businesses and families relocated there. The building was demolished during the early 1980s to make way for the construction of the Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.9
Amber Road in the Katong area was also named after the family clan name. Joe Elias and his brothers owned several estates along Amber Road, which used to stretch from Grove Road (now expunged) to Tanjong Katong Road. The most palatial of the properties was their family mansion known as the Elias Mansion. The Elias Mansion later became part of Sea View Hotel. The family also owned a holiday bungalow in Pasir Ris. The road leading to the bungalow was named Elias Road.10
Elias died at his home on 16 July 1949. The funeral was held at the Jewish Cemetery on Thomson Road. Elias and his brothers never married, so the family line was continued by his sister Miriam, who married her second cousin David J. Elias from Calcutta in 1914.11
Father: Aaron Shalome Joseph Elias
Mother: Sarina Elias née Balzer
Brothers: Ezra, Isaac (Ike), Raphael (Ralph)
Sisters: Miriam, Esther, Rebecca12
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia
1. Joan Bieder, The Jews of Singapore (Singapore: Suntree Media, 2007), 54 (Call no. RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS]); Eze Nathan, The History of Jews in Singapore, 1830–1945 (Singapore: Herbilu Editorial & Marketing Services, 1986), 77–78 (Call no.: RSING 301.45192405957 NAT); Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 111 (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); “Death of Mr. J.A. Elias,” Malaya Tribune, 17 July 1949, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 54, 56; Linda Elias, Personal Email Correspondence with Linda Elias, Great-Niece of Joseph Aaron Elias, regarding the Spelling of Her Great-Grandmother’s Name, Sarina, and the Family’s Clan Name, Amber, 28 February–3 March 2014.
3. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 54–55; Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 78; “Death of Mr. J.A. Elias”; Lesley Koh, “Hidden Treasure,” Straits Times, 4 December 1992, 1; “Page 11 Advertisements Column 3,” Straits Times, 23 April 1918, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 54–55; Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 78; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 111.
5. “Death of Mr. J.A. Elias”; “Death of Mr. Joe Elias,“ Straits Times, 17 July 1949, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 54–55; Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 78; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 111.
7. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 78, 193; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 111; “Death of Mr. J.A. Elias”; Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 55; Singapore and Straits Directory (Singapore: Mission Press, 1918), 35 (Call no. RRARE 382.09595 STR; microfilm NL1187); Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 564. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
8. “Death of Mr. J.A. Elias”; C. F. S., “Mr. J.A. Elias: An Appreciation,” Straits Times, 19 July 1949, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 54; “Death of Mr. J.A. Elias”; Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 78; Elias, Personal Email Correspondence.
10. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 57; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 17; Koh, “Hidden Treasure”; Lee Kip Lee, “No. 23 Wasn’t Cashin Mansion,” Straits Times, 10 January 2007, 35. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 57; Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 77; “Death of Mr. J.A. Elias”; “Funeral of Mr. J. Elias,” Straits Times, 18 July 1949, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 56; Elias, Personal Email Correspondence.
The information in this article is valid as of 2017 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.
Elias, Joseph Aaron, 1881-1949--Biography