Monday, 3 February 2014

Singapore's old spiral staircases

This spiral staircase was taken in 2005, belonging to the Baba House at Neil Road  before renovation took place. Ever wondered why staircases need to be spiral? Well, they are space savers -- and they are supposed to give defenders an edge over right-handed intruders wielding swords and rushing up the staircase. Their right-hand movements would be hampered by the way the spiral staircases are structured. In Singapore, spiral staircases made their appearances in the 1920s and according to Ghetto Singapore, Heritages and Places, they were for night soil carriers to collect the buckets from different households (on each floor) from the backlane, without entering the premises. So, they were for a very practical reason -- other than a means of fire escape. 
The spiral staircase of the old Baba House (before renovation)
led to a small courtyard.
ABSOLUTELY thrilling, those spiral staircases of the past. You can still see some of these now in back alleys. Among the spiral staircases of my childhood was one belonging to a shophouse at Serangoon Garden Way -- among the row where the famous late Dr Fernandez had his practice. I believe they are there still. (In the old days, shophouses each sport a spiral staircase at the back, as a fire escape.)
View from a spiral staircase.

My old primary school friend used to live in one of those shophouses with her mother and younger brother. She became the top girl the moment she started school. But I got to know her only in primary six when I was good enough to be in her class! I have heard of her fame even when I was in primary 4. Her mother was fantastic in knitting sweaters and scarves -- aided only by a hand-operated machine that I remember, had combs with wool interwoven among their long teeth. She only need to move the combs and the wool would form into patterns and get longer and longer. Until this day, I am not sure how that machine works. My friend was very good at knitting too, besides her studies. (I think she went into medicine after her A levels.)

I visited her quite often and we would enact scenes from Enid Blyton's Famous Five or Secret Seven. We would pretend to sneak out of the house, using the spiral staircase -- and into the backlane -- out on another secret mission.

Whoops, the spiral staircases I used to know behind the row of shophouses at Serangoon Garden Way have gone into hiding. But they are there, behind these extensions in the backyard -- I saw a glimpse of one peeping out from the top. But I was unable to capture it as someone was smoking in the back alley and rather upset that I was disturbing his moment of solitude. 
Another spiral staircase that emerged from even deeper memories, belonged to a shophouse whose owner must be some dealer in Chinese medicine as he was always giving my dad a supply of things like Tiger balm, Bobo tan (Bobo pills that have this fat baby as trademark on the label) and Jin tan (small, rounded silver pills that have a peppermint taste). While my parents were chatting with him (must be an old friend), I vaguely remember looking out of the window into a small courtyard which the spiral staircase led to -- and this fascinating sky well that let in shafts of sunlight forming patterns on the wooden floor.

And each time we visited, the boss would give us trinkets -- pendants and chains made from plastic. One was in the shape of a one-inch square, with a picture of a windmill. The surface was gritted and gave the illusion of the windmill blades moving. On the back of this pendant was an advertisement for Bobo pills.

Each time I see spiral staircases, I have only good memories.

Back of the row of buildings between the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) near MacDonald House at Orchard Road. Taken from Handy Road. Pic: May 2013.
Spiral staircases at a backlane off Geylang Lorong 6, near Oxley Hotel.
The row of shophouses at Geylang Lor 6,  from the front.
Old spiral staircases just don't look good in blue and red...the attempt to jazz them up only adds to the sleaze factor. That's just my opinion, of course. 
The quaint spiral staircase at the end of this lane survives -- not sure for how long.
Spiral staircase at the back of a row of houses along Lavender Street.  

Glimpse of two spiral staircases -- one at the white house on the left and the other belongs to the house behind the tree. Picture taken from Veerasamy Road, Feb, 2014.

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