May 10, 2012

Secret of the Attic at Kingsmead Road

NHB Marker - Chen Wen Hsi

I stumbled onto this NHB heritage marker at Kingsmead Road one day while wandering in Bukit Timah. This came as a surprise, as I did not expect to find one in the middle of this posh landed housing estate. Even more puzzling was the fact that the blue marker supposedly commemorates an artist, whose fence wall at his former residence the marker now adorns.

According to NHB in their website dedicated to heritage trails, the blue plaque is a reminder that the building is a marked historic site. Sites like this are "places of historical significance, for eg, important event or personality are being commemorated at the site to serve as reminders of our history". Spotted anything unusual about this site?

The interesting thing here is that no private residence has ever made it to the list; you will not see one in the list on the heritage trail website. The closest we have to a private residence would be 7 Adam Park commemorating, not the occupant of the black and white bungalow before the war, but the intense fighting between the British and invading Japanese forces - the event known as Battle of Adam Park.

Where personalities are concerned, no-one has ever been commemorated at his residence by a NHB blue plaque. There have been hopes that a great statesman like the father of modern Singapore would accede to the idea of turning his private residence into a museum after his passing, but such hopes are slim. I have blogged about how the authorities can do more to honour the legacy of the old guards. Indeed even if nobody does anything, we already have an informal heritage marker of sort for one old guard in Singapore.

Singapore pioneer artist Chen Wen Hsi in a doctorate gown (source). This could have been taken when he was conferred the Doctor of Letters, an honourary degree, by the then University of Singapore in 1975.

Why then is an artist the first to be commemorated with a heritage plaque at his former residence when even economic and social architects have not had the honour? By this, I am in no way implying the artist is insignificant; I have actually read about Chen Wen Hsi (陈文希) in my secondary school Art textbook together with other 'Nanyang' artists like Liu Kang and Georgette Chen. I was delighted to know later from reading Pei Yun's post on Chen Wen Hsi that she too studied about the artist in her Art textbook.

My guess is that it was more of an event than the personality that is being commemorated at the former residence. Here is something you may not learn from art books on Chen Wen Hsi - the secret of the attic in his former residence at 7 Kingsmead Road. I believe it was the chance discovery of the secret that precipitated the erection of the plaque. This is hinted rather obliquely in the heritage trail website on Chen Wen Hsi. Under the 'Did You Know' section, of an 'Amazing Discovery':

"An extraordinary find of more than thirty oil paintings by late pioneer artist Chen Went His [sic] were uncovered in the attic of his former residence during renovation works."

(My goodness, NHB could not even get the late artist's name correct and the mistake has not been spotted?)

Historic Site of Former Residence of Chen Wen Hsi
The historic site of the former residence of Chen Wen Hsi marked on SLA map, near the junction of Kingsmead and Victoria Park roads.

The proverbial van Gogh in the attic rings true for the new owners of 7 Kingsmead Road in 1999. Chen had passed away in 1991. In October 1998 Greg and Seow Joo Mee bought the residence and unknown to them, the house had an attic. The attic and cache of more than thirty oil paintings were discovered in March 1999 by accident when they went to check on the roof condition. Do read articles in the 17 March 1999 copy of the Straits Times on reports of the discovery, if you are interested.

So there you go, one probable reason why NHB put up a blue plaque on the former residence of our pioneer artist!

NHB Marker - House of Chen Wen Hsi
7 Kingsmead Road with the blue plaque on the fence wall. This former residence of artist Chen Wen Hsi has a secret attic and the attic contains a secret. Where do you think is the attic in this photo?


PJ said...

The house in the photo is not the original house - it was demolished about 15-20 years ago and the house that you see how was built in its place by the current owners. The original house, if my memory serves me correctly, was a small one story bungalow right in the centre of the garden.

Icemoon said...

PJ, thanks for the information. From the facts given - Chen passed away in 1991 and secret discovery in 1999 - it is possible the secret was buried in the new house and not the small one storey bungalow you mentioned. It is possible Chen built the new house after demolishing the old one.