St James Power Station: And the power... it' still electrifying

Above, left: Mr Sakai is the director of Millian Singapore, St James Power Station's biggest tenant at about 10,700 sq ft. Above, right: Ms Lim, Club Gossip's owner, was drawn to the venue's big space and the fact that the club can run till 6am. St J
St James Power Station officially opened in 1927 as a coal-fired power station. In the 1980s, it was converted into a warehouse, and in 2006, became a nightlife complex, its latest incarnation.PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG
Mr Chan, Luxi Dance Club's general manager, finds St James Power Station particularly appealing because of its 20m-high ceiling, which provides enough space for light projection.
Mr Sakai is the director of Millian Singapore, St James Power Station's biggest tenant at about 10,700 sq ft.
Above, left: Mr Sakai is the director of Millian Singapore, St James Power Station's biggest tenant at about 10,700 sq ft. Above, right: Ms Lim, Club Gossip's owner, was drawn to the venue's big space and the fact that the club can run till 6am. St J
Ms Lim, Club Gossip's owner, was drawn to the venue's big space and the fact that the club can run till 6am. PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG
Above, left: Mr Sakai is the director of Millian Singapore, St James Power Station's biggest tenant at about 10,700 sq ft. Above, right: Ms Lim, Club Gossip's owner, was drawn to the venue's big space and the fact that the club can run till 6am. St J
Mr Chan, Luxi Dance Club's general manager, finds St James Power Station particularly appealing because of its 20m-high ceiling, which provides enough space for light projection. PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG

From places of worship to educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history. This is the 17th in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems.

St James Power Station pulsates with energy every night when revellers power up its dance halls to party the night away.

But in a bygone era, it sent out another type of energy as Singapore's first coal-fired power station.

In the early 20th century, the only sources of electricity in Singapore were the Singapore Tramway Company's Power Station and the Singapore Harbour Board.

But demand for electricity was rising to meet industrial and domestic needs and allow for future growth.

The ground on which the power station stands, Cape Saint James, was reclaimed for its construction in 1924, according to the National Heritage Board (NHB) Roots website.

The first unit in the power plant was installed and commissioned on Sept 30, 1926.

Officially opened on Nov 7, 1927, it produced about 22,000 kilowatts of electricity at full capacity - almost seven times that of earlier facilities.

As the building was gazetted as a national monument in 2009, its owners cannot alter its facade. Nor can they build any extensions or hack any walls.

The building's skeleton was formed by massive steel works. A distinctive feature was its red-bricked facade, lined with rows of full-length windows, the tinted-glass panels letting natural light into the large interior spaces.

The power station comprised a boiler house, turbine room, switchgear house, pumps and storage areas for coal.

But it was beset with problems in the years that followed, resulting in blackouts and power failures, and had to be closed for upgrading in 1956.

On July 2, 1960, it was reopened by the Finance Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, with its power output increased by 18,000kW.

It eventually closed in 1976, edged out by new plants such as the Pasir Panjang and Jurong power stations.

In the 1980s, the Port of Singapore Authority converted it into a warehouse. Renovation in 2005 saw it reincarnated as a nightlife complex on Sept 24, 2006.

Mr Wyatt Ang, senior marketing executive of St James Power Station, told The Straits Times: "Our CEO, Mr Dennis Foo, together with investors, leased the four-storey building, and spent over $40 million on a makeover.

"We touched up the outside of the building. Inside, the turbine rooms and engine rooms were converted into spaces for clubs.

"I would say 95 per cent of the original monument, in terms of facade and structures, has been preserved. Even the flag pole and the steps leading to it were from when it was built."

With a total of 90,000 sq ft, the venue, with its two 30m-tall chimneys, is home to 10 entertainment establishments.

According to Mr Ang, $50,000 is spent each year on conservation and restoration works, like painting, maintenance and facade cleaning.

"Our maintenance team does cursory checks every morning at the start of its shift. Any damage to the structure and facade has to be reported to Mr Foo immediately."

As the building was gazetted as a national monument in 2009, its owners cannot alter its facade. Nor can they build any extensions or hack any walls.

Unfortunately, they cannot always control the occasional unruly drunk patron, who may vomit or urinate on the premises, or do even more damage, as happened in September, when some young men threw Molotov cocktails in an act of revenge against a staff member of one of the entertainment outlets there.

The owner of Club Gossip, a club with a Vietnamese concept, gravitated towards St James when she was choosing a venue three years ago because of its space and opening hours.

"There is a very big space here, which is very hard to find in town," said Ms Lim Bee Hua. "In town, we also have to close at 3am, while the licence here allows us to operate until 6am."

The 20m-high ceiling was definitely a factor, said Luxi Dance Club's general manager, Mr Alwyn Chan.

"I did take a look around at openings in shopping centres and hotels, but all were not spacious enough. We need space to project lights, and give partygoers a sense of spaciousness," he said.

"We mainly worried about things such as the piping and electrical points in such an old building, but so far, it's all gone well."

When asked if his customers know of the venue's history, Mr Chan said: "I don't think so. They come for the music and nightlife."

Mr Ryohei Sakai, director of Japanese fusion event venue Millian Singapore, the biggest tenant at St James Power Station at about 10,700 sq ft, said that while the older generation may know its significance as a national monument, "the hype about it has been piped down".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2016, with the headline 'And the power... it's still electrifying'. Print Edition | Subscribe