Sunday, November 18, 2007
The Bukit Tinggi Area
Fierce battle in the Swiss Club area Swiss Club housed the Royal Australian Medical Corps During battle for Singapore final phase General Matsui set up his headquarters in Bukit Tinggi Hill and directed operations End of 1943 Japanese took over Swiss Club and became the residence of the Commander of the Japanese military unit
There was fierce fighting between Japanese forces under Lieutenant General Matsui, Commander of the 5th Division and British forces in the vicinity of the Swiss Club and Bukit Tinggi where Matsui set up his Divisional Headquarters and conducted the final operations in the Battle for Singapore.
The Swiss Club had housed the Royal Australian Medical Corps. During the Malayan campaign the Club was used by the Royal Air Force as arrest camp.
Before the British Surrender on 15 February 1942 the Australians vacated and it became the residence of the Commander of the Butai, a Japanese military unit.
The Swiss Club was established in 1871. It was then known as the Swiss Rifle Shooting Club of Singapore and had its premises off Balestier Road. Later in 1910 the Club moved to Bukit Timah and in 1925 to Bukit Tinggi.
Though Switzerland remained a neutral country in World War II, the Swiss in Singapore did voluntary services as Air Raid Precaution Wardens and served in the auxiliary medical services and bomb disposal squads.
The Swiss Club
By Vincent Soh
Prestige Magazine August 2001
- Club house in 1927
Sprawled over 28 acres on the verdant slopes of Bukit Tinggi (“High Hill”) is one of Singapore’s oldest and most famous social fraternities, the Swiss Club. For the 130 years since its formation as the Swiss Rifle Shooting Club in 1871, the Club has been the convivial heart and pulse of social life for the Swiss community. No longer restricting membership to Swiss nationals and even at one time, men only, the Club today embraces more than a 1,000 persons of 40 different nationalities.(In 1870, it was also established as the Swiss Rifle Shooting Club of Singapore to ensure that Swiss citizens continued to fulfil their national requirement of military readiness.)
The Swiss Club survived two world wars, decades of creaking financial problems, the changing times and a destructive fire. Its colourful history reads like a dipstick lifted from the waters of Singapore’s past.
The Swiss community in 1870 was mainly from the weaving industry, used to putting in 14-hour days, seven days a week. The jaunty English, on the other hand, rested during Saturday afternoons and Sundays, taking the time to passionately pursue national interests like cricket.
Otto Alder, a Swiss who envied the English for their leisure pursuits, fretted over the lack of Swiss activities and a place for the community to come together. It was suggested one day that he invite his friends to his home at “lonely Bunker Hill” for tiffin, whereupon inspiration, as Otto himself would write, resoundingly struck:
“Then a thought came to my rescue and I asked my friends to turn up with their rifles and I would get ready a target. I made a large one after the Swiss pattern...”
And flushed with success afterwards: “The good spirits rose higher and higher; we all felt ourselves to be real Swiss. I tinkled the glass, stood up and said: “Friends, how would it be if we took this game seriously and formed a shooting club where we would gather every Saturday afternoon for real Swiss shooting practice?” The motion was carried with deafening applause.
Three founder members roamed the island on horseback looking for a suitable site, and found one off Balestier Road on which was located a small valley of a size that matched the distance required of a shooting range. The first constructions of the Club were five wooden targets on one end of the valley and a simple attap hut at the other. In August 1871, the shooting range was opened.
In August 1872, the Swiss community celebrated the first official shooting festival as the inaugural event for the young Club. To the jubilation of all, the first shots were slammed into the bulls-eye by a Miss Baenziger, who came from a family stocked with shooting champions.
A photograph survives in the possession of Diethelm & Co of a shooting festival in 1877. About 22 members, nearly the whole of the shooting club, posed for the photograph. Behind them flapped a life-sized flag of Helvetia drawn by Otto Alder himself, complete with a squinting, cross-eyed lion.
It turned out later that the land actually belonged to influential Chinese business man Whampoa, who arrived in haste one day to complain about bullets not only missing their targets, but fired over the hill.
The Early Years
For many decades after 1871, the membership of the Club would not exceed 30 people. From the beginning, however, the feeling of solidarity and belonging flourished with the enjoyment of ethnic activities, and the small Club not only managed to keep things together but also gradually improved the amenities and increased the variety of activities.
In 1875, a rather large clubhouse was erected on the Balestier site, clear progress from the simple small affair constructed earlier. No pictures survive of this building, but it was clearly designed to entertain a number of members and guests, constructed, as it was, with a stage.
According to records, this meeting place became a favourite of the community where “happy and informal hours” could be spent with friends and companions. Impromptu singing and yodeling, for example, did not raise eyebrows but beer mugs in salute. On the matter of beer, it was recorded by the Baumgartner family that roughly 36 gallons of beer, to slake some terrible thirsts, were consumed during every club event.
These were heady days. The thunder of artillery from pieces located on nearby hillocks heralded the start of every shooting practice and competition. Clear records were kept of events from those days when ladies shot at pictures of Cupid instead of bulls-eyes and the German Consul would hand out prizes to competition winners. Swiss leisure was also found in skittling and other traditional activities.
A significant milestone was reached in 1881 when the tenth anniversary of the Club was celebrated. Under President W.H.Diethelm, the Club toiled to host a very special shooting competition for numerous guests from abroad. W. H. Diethelm was a remarkable and prominent man of the club. As a founding member, his continuous efforts to elevate the Club above obscurity were matched only by his popularity and the generosity of his repeated donations, over many years from abroad after he left Singapore for Switzerland in 1886. During the tenth anniversary event, he attended to his duties despite grieving over the recent death of his infant daughter. Lulled by singing and musical performances at the Club, members enjoyed these halcyon days. The Club became known in all sections of the European community for its informal hospitality and meditative surroundings. Members were menaced by only sporadic rioting from Chinese secret societies and the threat of tropical diseases.
The High Hill
The Balestier site however became untenable in June 1901 when the Swiss Rifle Shooting Club received a notice of eviction from the place it had occupied for exactly 30 years. This would prove to be the start of a series of financial struggles for the fraternity.
Despite opposition from fainthearted members who opposed splashing out on a new piece of land and building, a dynamic personality in the person of then-president J. Schudel, pushed through a motion to keep the Club going and made every effort to live up to the Club’s purpose.
Despite an extraordinary $2,000 which had to be paid out for the direct purchase of land at Bukit Tinggi, members of the Club showed foresight in avoiding a lease that would have seen its termination date in the financially-troubled 1920s. The plot of land was subsequently increased to incorporate land for a swimming pool, or bath as it was then called. A large club house was built and in August 1902 a formal opening and glittering party was celebrated there from which the last guest only barely staggered away in the early hours of the next morning.
In 1909, however, smack in the middle of the good times at the splendid club, both the Club building and shooting house burned down. Everything was destroyed, and the cause of the fire, either a disgruntled servant or a merciless bolt from the heavens, was never clearly determined. With money from the insurance company, swift action was taken to construct another Club house, this time even more ambitious in layout. It was only later realised that, quite obviously now, funds would be insufficient, and another round of soliciting donations was ruefully conducted.
In June 1914, extraordinary revisions of the rules and regulations of the club were made when H. R. Arbenz, an outspoken and influential member, proposed that the pro vision allowing only German-speakers to be inducted into the Club be removed. It was a major step forward in removing discrimination and indirectly lead to the popularity of the Club today. Determined, Arbenz became president and remained so for many years.
Despite some harassment in the British colony due to their German ties, Swiss members would find the years of the First World War to be easy and lucrative due to increased trade in Singapore. In any case, most of the members were quietly thankful they avoided the muddy hell and killing fields of Europe with their dire privation and untold miseries. Having to give up their guns during this time seemed an inconsequential affair.
(left) Members in 1915
The 50th anniversary of the Club in 1921 was another gala affair. According to records, it was “a memorable day of Swiss customs and ways (Schweizerart)”. The occasion, with the year, would prove however to be a cornerstone in the interpretation of Swiss tradition in Singapore.
Pre-Second World War Years
In the year 1925, the yearly report noted, “1924 can be considered a year of restoration and transition in the political and economic field, as well as in the life of the Club.” Strengthened by a new generation of members, filled with vim and enterprise, the Club too sought a new direction and purpose.
A significant motion was subsequently passed in changing the name of the Club from Schweizer Schützen Verein (Swiss Rifle Shooting Club) to simply Schweizer Klub (Swiss Club). The members rejected the traditional military spirit of Swiss shooting clubs in light of the terrible killing in the First World War. The new Club sought instead to be a club for the community, practicing rifle shooting only on a competitive level and ranking it behind other activities which cultivated social together ness. Swimming and skittling were very popular while tennis gradually found its footing.
During the same year, the club building became less than house-worthy with the discovery of worm-eaten woodwork full of dry rot and damaged by beetles and white ants. After some consideration, members bravely decided to build a stone clubhouse, rare in those days, costing some $18,000.
The new clubhouse, built under the guidance of H. R. Arbenz, was a delight. Its solid construction at the top of the hill with the green slope at its feet spurred the elation of members. Designed on the lines of a small Swiss chalet, complete with turreted roof, it was reported to be “excellently appointed in every respect” by the Malay Tribune in 1927. It is still in service and underwent a face-lift with repainting in 2001.
Neutrals in an Occupation
The Swiss, like other communities, were caught cold by the sudden invasion of North Malaya. Within three months Japanese soldiers shouldered British forces aside in Malaya and defeated them in a pitched battle in Singapore. A monument to the invasion troops was built on Bukit Tinggi after the capitulation.
The recognition of the neutral status of the Swiss by the Japanese was successfully carried out and incarceration was avoided, although it did not spare the men occasional bullying. The Swiss Club was looted by forces from both sides as well as the local population, smashing everything in view. Members fled to other parts of Asia in droves, quite unlike during the previous conflict.
Visits to the clubhouse diminished, which was somewhat good considering that supplies had also plummeted, and atten dance finally fell to zero when the house was appropriated by a Japanese commander who promptly installed a lavatory at the bar counter.
The succeeding years until the liberation were a period of increasing deprivation, malnutrition and decay, although a glimmer of light could be found in increased interaction and friendliness between the locals and the dwindling numbers of foreigners. By the war’s end, 20 Swiss nationals were the only Caucasians among more than a million Asians.
With the appointment of Hans Schweizer Iten as the Delegate of the Red Cross of Geneva, the Swiss community took the initiative in collecting and delivering food stuffs, medicine and goods to prisoners in over 13 internment camps, amid increasing chaos and social disorder. After surrender, for the three weeks until the British arrived, the Red Cross worked feverishly with others to save souls in peril.
After the war, Club life ran its course, although improved significantly by a heavy renovation and improvement project carried out in 1960. In 1966, the Swiss Club had to give up 10 per cent of its land to the government while it also had to battle and pay off squatters.
On October 30, 1983, some land was finally let out for lease with building rights to the Dutch, French and German schools as well as the British Club. Otherwise much of the Club land today remains green in the manner of a country estate with beautiful trees shading steps and paths.