HeritageGems

Music and memories within its walls

The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall underwent restoration and renovation in 2010 before reopening four years later.
The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall underwent restoration and renovation in 2010 before reopening four years later. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall underwent restoration and renovation in 2010 before reopening four years later. Singapore Symphony Orchestra oboist Elaine Yeo, who says the Victoria Concert Hall is like a second home to her, had photos of her w
Singapore Symphony Orchestra oboist Elaine Yeo (above), who says the Victoria Concert Hall is like a second home to her, had photos of her wedding with husband Goh Ee Kiat taken in the building about 10 years ago.PHOTOS: LAU FOOK KONG, STEFAN CHOW
Singapore Symphony Orchestra oboist Elaine Yeo, who says the Victoria Concert Hall is like a second home to her, had photos of her wedding (above) with husband Goh Ee Kiat taken in the building about 10 years ago.
Singapore Symphony Orchestra oboist Elaine Yeo, who says the Victoria Concert Hall is like a second home to her, had photos of her wedding (above) with husband Goh Ee Kiat taken in the building about 10 years ago.PHOTOS: LAU FOOK KONG, STEFAN CHOW

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

With its Neoclassical architectural style, tall white columns and majestic clock tower, the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall is a choice location for wedding photo shoots.

One bride who had her wedding photographs taken about 10 years ago in the building is Ms Elaine Yeo, 49.

Yet, more than just having an appreciation of the aesthetics of the building, she chose the location for a very personal reason.

The Victoria Concert Hall has been like a second home to her for the past 35 years. She knows the place, both in its old and new incarnations, like the back of her hand.

The place has seen her grow from a teenager when she first joined the Singapore Youth Orchestra to an accomplished oboist in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). The SSO's home ground is the Victoria Concert Hall.

"In the past, there were not many venues where concerts could be held, so many came here," she said. "It is so ornate and beautiful, and it is such a significant building. It speaks of our history."

Indeed, the building, gazetted as a national monument in 1992, is steeped in history. Victoria Theatre was constructed between 1855 and 1862. It was then known as a town hall and served as a venue for social functions and plays.

Between 1903 and 1905, the Concert Hall was built next to it as a memorial hall to honour Queen Victoria, who died in 1901.

Subsequently, both buildings were joined by a 54m-high copper-domed clock tower, topped with a crown.

  • THROUGH THE YEARS

  • 1855- 1862

    Victoria Theatre was constructed. It was then known as a town hall and served as a venue for plays and social functions.

    1903- 1905

    The Concert Hall was built next to it as a memorial hall to honour Queen Victoria, who died in 1901.

    1992

    The building was gazetted as a national monument

In 2010, the theatre and concert hall underwent a four-year-long restoration and renovation before reopening in 2014.

Architectural conservation specialist consultant Ho Weng Hin, who was involved in the restoration project, said that during the colonial times, the building was like a beacon for people who came to the seaport of Singapore.

"It was a landmark that could be seen from all directions. In fact, it is such an interesting building because it straddles the old and the new - the Victorian era and the new modern age that would come after it."

He added that the building was also a symbol of Singapore's progress. It was constructed as the colony was gaining prominence in the region. "Its architectural grandeur reminds us of how Singapore has developed."

For Ms Yeo, the concert hall is also a place that reminds her of her past and how she has developed as a musician. Unlike visitors to the building who know only the atrium and concert hall, Ms Yeo is familiar with the unseen backstage areas where musicians prepare for their moment in the spotlight.

"We had lockers that we personalised and stuck our own little stickers on," she said. "About 20 ladies used to cram into this one small dressing room. There would be chaos after shows with all the changing out of costumes and banter."

To her, the scariest thing backstage was the flight of large steps leading up to the stage. "I would be waiting nervously at the bottom of the stairs, watching the previous performers come down with their huge double basses."

Although the building has been renovated and improved upon, Ms Yeo is nostalgic for the way it was in the past.

"The rain would leak through the ceiling in the early 2000s because the building was so old," she recalled. "We kept buckets to catch the raindrops but the water would still end up discolouring the floor. There would also be cockroaches."

Despite such drawbacks, she fondly remembers the old building. "It felt so cosy and homely. Now it's white and sterile, new and clean."

Still, she is looking forward to creating new memories in the refurbished quarters. "It changes with the times, which is a good thing. I will always treasure my memories but now, seeing the youth orchestra kids running along these same corridors, it's like seeing my younger self again."

Besides Ms Yeo, Mr Kashmir Singh, a 66-year-old technician, also has fond memories of the place, having often spent the Christmas period at the theatre.

He said he was part of the Hans Anderson club, which took underprivileged children to the Victoria Theatre every December in the 1960s and 1970s. Each time, he would bring 60 to 180 children, aged six to 10. A volunteer, he was then only a teenager.

"This whole area holds so many memories for me because it's where I grew up. It reminds me so much of the good old days," he said.

He added that it was good to have the building refurbished and to maintain the exterior facade, although the interior might look different. "It gives me comfort to know it will remain there. If they tear it down, I will be shattered."

And for Ms Yeo, the monument will always be one that holds great sentimental value for her as it contains her memories both past and present.

"It has always been so much more than just a workplace. This place has become part of me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2017, with the headline 'Music and memories within its walls'. Print Edition | Subscribe