Fort Canning – 14th century walk

Most squash players may remember the squash courts at Fort Canning Centre. During the heydays of squash fever in the 70’s and early 80’s, names like Zainal Abidin and Peter Hill became synonymous with the game of squash. Besides Kampong Java Tennis and Squash Centre, I remembered having enjoyed a few games of squash using the Ascot racket with fellow classmates at Fort Canning. At that time, the building was pretty rundown and in dire need of renovations. Today, a stroll at Fort Canning brought back some happy memories as well as a peek into its history.

Before 1822, Fort Canning Hill was known as Bukit Larangan (meaning “Forbidden Hill”). It was so called because of age old legends that this hill was believed to be the sacred burial ground for kings of royalty.

^ From the earliest recorded history in the Malay Annals of the 14th and 15th century, Parameswara (aka Sultan Iskandar Shah), the fifth king from Palembang of royal descent in the Majapahit empire fled to Singapore where he established his rule for 3 years. Due to a Javanese attack, he and his followers fled Singapore. Having arrived at Melaka which he founded, he established his rule for 20 years.

^ When Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819, Bukit Larangan became the centrality of colonial power and residence. In 1822, Raffles had build his residence on the grounds of Bukit Larangan. It was later known as Government Hill or Singapore Hill. Much later, it became known as Fort Canning Hill named after Viscount Charles John Canning, Governor-General and First Viceroy of India (1856-1862). A bit of a huff and puff as you walked up the steps to the top of the hill which is said to be 156 ft high.

^ You will not be at a loss for directions.

^ Along the 14th century walk, you will arrive at ‘The Archaeological Dig”.

^ Given its rich history, Fort Canning Hill held remains of ancient Chinese and Malay artefacts. In 1984, archaeological finds were discovered. This prompted an excavation project commissioned by the National Museum, led by John Miksic, and sponsored by Shell.

^ Text panel describing the ancient history of Singapore.

^ Glass covered showcases displaying the artefacts uncovered at Fort Canning Hill.

^ Artefacts ranges from civilian to miltary. Some of the items uncovered were old coins, pieces of pottery, glassware, utensils etc. Inset photo at the bottom left shows a sentry on duty at Fort Canning Gate. Inset photo at the bottom right shows drawings of European Clay Pipes.

^ The photo shows two pieces of the base of a green glazed bowl with impressed double-fish motif excavated at Fort Canning Hill which is probably of 14th century origin. (Photocredit: National Archives of Singapore)

^ Pieces of broken porcelain from bowls with intricate designs.

^ Officially opened on 20th April 2001.

^ Following information was obtained from the National Library Board:

Sir Stamford Raffles initiated the setting up of the Botanical Gardens in November 1822 headed by surgeon Nathaniel Wallich. Wallich had had earlier success in setting up the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. At least 48 acres of land was staked out, including the Government Gardens on the slopes of the hill, where nutmeg and cloves had been planted since 1819. Fruit trees were also abundant on the hill, remnants of a possible royal garden under the ancient Malayan kings. Unfortunately, rising costs of maintenance and the lack of government support saw the closure of the experimental spice gardens in June 1829 but not before Wallich had produced a new strain of orchid, the Vanda Wallachii. The plot was sold to the Armenian church. In November 1994, the Spice Gardens, a 1,168 sq m replica of the early Botanical Gardens on the hill was established. The Spice Gardens hold seven species of spice plants such as clove and nutmeg, which were originally planted along these slopes. (Credit: National Library of Singapore)

^ The old method of extraction. You may recall how original soyabean milk taste like.

^ Wang Dayuan, a visitor to Temasek in 1330, who wrote about “Longyamen” – Dragon’s Tooth Strait. A perilous journey through pirate infested waters.

^ One of seven guns of 68-pounder size located at Fort Canning Hill.

^ Fort Canning Centre where I use to play squash in the late 70’s. Now, it evokes a sense of calm and tranquility as you walk along the lawn and forested footpaths.

^ Certain units of Fort Canning Centre have become offices for photography studios and arts establishments.

^ An old photograph as well as a display of the rickshaw at Fort Canning Centre. The text panel reads:
Rickshaws were a cheap and manouverable form of transport in Singapore in the early 1900s. The pullers were usually Chinese men from Foochow province in China. At their peak in 1922, there were over 30,000 rickshaws on the island. But by the 1930s, their popularity had began to decline. There were less than 4,000 rickshaws by 1939.

^ A refurbished building that was once the OMSQ (Old Married Soldiers Quarters).

^ An old file photo showing Fort Canning Gate with a sentry on guard. (Photocredit: National Archives of Singapore, circa 1925). Following information was obtained from the National Library of Singapore:
In 1859, Government House was demolished and the construction of the Fort was started despite protests by some quarters which believed it was a mistake to locate the fort on the hill so far removed from shore. Built on an excavated plateau, the Fort was completed in 1861 with 400 Chinese coolies. It was named after Viscount Charles John Canning, Governor-General and First Viceroy of India (1856-1862). There were seven 68-pounders positioned toward the sea by May 1859, and another eight 8-inch shell guns and two 13-inch mortars added with even a hospital for European artillerymen built in 1867. A 68-pounder would go off each morning at 5:00 am, signalling the start of the day for those within a two-mile radius, enough for most bunglow residents around Fort Canning to note. The cannons were used right up until 1896 to also signal the outbreak of fires. Unfortunately, when the Fort was completed, it was noticed that the fort at Pearl’s Hill was higher and thus the Government Military Engineer ordered that Pearl’s Hill be shaved off to meet the right height. The fort was demolished in 1907, never having been used in defense of the country and only two 9-pound cannons and the Gothic archway of its entrance (the Old Fort Gateway 1859), designed by G. C. Collyer, still stand.

^ Present-day photo of Fort Canning Gate. If walls can talk, there will be many stories to tell including the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese invading forces on 15th Feb 1942 decided by General A.E.Percival at his command bunker located at Fort Canning Hill.

^ The Gate of Fort Canning.

^ A remnant of the history of Fort Canning Hill.

^ I sighted this extremely huge and tall tree. Its girth is about the circumference of 5 persons linking hands together forming a circle, towering about 5-6 storeys high.

^ Another massive tree that provided much shade to visitors.

^ Government House and Fort Canning.

^ The house that Raffles built…rather a refurbished section of the original house. At the front, it provides a panoramic view all round except that now, towering skyscrapers are part of the skyline.

^ An old photo showing the landscape of Fort Canning Hill. At the background stood Fort Canning Lighthouse. (Photocredit: National Archives of Singapore, circa 1925)

^ The lighthouse still remains. On the right of the lighthouse (not in photo) is actually a flagstaff. The purpose of the flagstaff is to announce the arrival of merchant ships that act as a signal to traders and coolie suppliers to quickly make their way to the harbour.

^ The South Battery.

^ The cannons at Fort Canning Hill pointed southwards in the defence of Singapore during WW2 in anticipation of the direction of the Japanese invasion. The Japanese attack came from the North having secured Kota Bahru as a foothold and rumbled down the Malayan Peninsular southwards to the doors of Singapore.

^ Keramat Iskandar Syah.

^ The location on Fort Canning Hill believed to be the burial place of Sultan Iskandar Shah.

^ Information about Sultan Iskandar Shah.

^ It’s not all things old and historical. You may chance upon some beautiful flowers along the paths.


If you have the time, perhaps Fort Canning Hill may just be your next stop for a quiet stroll amid lush history and greenery.


5 Responses to “Fort Canning – 14th century walk”

  1. py Says:

    Hey! I visited Fort Canning several times during the past few months. I wonder if I had met you there by chance?

    Great work and writing. I didn’t know that there was a place to play squash in the past at Fort Canning Hill. I used to have a fancy to climb the steps up to the second storey of the Fort Canning Gate when I was a teenager visiting Fort Canning Hill.

  2. ordinary guy Says:

    Hi PY,

    I only visited Fort Canning recently. Perhaps photographers should wear a form of micrpchip where photographers can ID fellow photographers.

  3. Ron Says:

    Great stuff dude. I’ve lived across the road from Fort Canning for the past 20 years and I’ve walked those paths since I was an SJI boy in the 70’s for activities not to be discussed. Playing squash there? Almost every Sunday morning in the 80’s than heading down to Chinatown for dimsum breakfast. Have been trying to get the kids to take walks with the dog and to enjoy what others can’t. But the new generation and their abstinence to humidty. I remember climbing the slopes to get a free seat for one of those awesome 2nd Chance rock concerts. Still wondering why on earth they close down the pool where all my kids learnt to swin. Just left in ruins. Meaningless. Very old style pool but just had that thing about it. And one of the 60’s family fave places to visit, The Van Cleef Aquarium. And that big clock built into the slope facing Tank Road. Those were great times which I’m still lucky to enjoy. Cheers. Great work.

    • ordinary guy Says:

      Hi Ron,

      Yes. The area at Fort Canning have changed with the disappearance of National Theatrea with her iconic fountain at the front and the clock. So is the Van Cleef Aquarium. The swimming pool you mentioned was the River Valley Swimming Pool which today is left abandoned and unused.

  4. Sam Lim Says:

    I was told that there were two gates at fort canning hill or are there two ??? Please let me have the answer please. Many thanks

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