River House, 1880s, Tan Yeok Nee’s first mansion Also known as Lian Yi Xuan, River House was Tan Yeok Nee’s first house which was later converted to a clan hall, residence and warehouse. Built in the 1880s, the double-storeyed house most likely modelled after Seah Eu Chin’s which was built a decade earlier. Looking at the large forecourt, there was probably also an entrance doorway similar to Seah’s house. Unfortunately the entrance doorway was replaced by a single floor structure as can be seen in Ronni’s picture taken in the 1980s. The dilapidated house was restored in 1993 and was converted to an art gallery and Chinese restaurant in the beginning. It is now the venue of an eclectic Chinoiserie bar and restaurant known as “Forbidden City”. What an irony considering Tan Yeok Nee was rumored to have kept his mistress here. A mistake was made during the restoration by painting the granite carvings black. Sadly, the original timber trusses within the building have been replaced by concrete beams. However, if you do visit “Forbidden City”, do take some time to admire the roof ornamentation, granite carvings and the two narrow lanes on either side of the building. These narrow lanes are a typical feature of traditional Teochew houses used for fire escape. Sometimes, you can find wells in these lanes! The Four Great Teochew mansions There used to be four great Teochew mansions known as See Dai Cu. Except for Tan Yeok Nee’s mansion which still survives and has been converted into the Chicago School of Management, the other three mansions had been demolished and forgotten. Through searching of pictures from the national archives and other sources, I will attempt to give an idea how the demolished Teochew mansions looked like.
- House of Tan Seng Poh (1869). It was located at the junction of Loke Yew Street and Hill Street, no. 58 Hill Street. In this picture taken in 1863 (which is before Seng Poh’s ownership of no. 58), Armenian church is on the far left, followed by no. 59 (Albion Hotel and by 1909 changed to Waverley Hotel) and no. 57 on the far right (Tan Bin Cheng’s house later). Tan Seng Poh’s no. 58 mansion served as the office for the Qing appointed consul to Singapore , Cheong Fatt Sze, between 1895 – 1900. By about 1903, Tan Seng Poh’s house has been replaced by a 3-storey shophouse building. No pictures of Tan Seng Poh’s mansion have been found yet. It is possible that the existing bungalow bought over by Tan Seng Poh was modified with a Teochew-style roof and entrance gate.
- House of Seah Eu Chin (1832-1834, 1872). Located along North Boat Quay, the site is currently the field in front of the Parliament House. The house was originally built between 1832-34 for Yeo Kim Swee, a Peranakan towkay who Seah Eu Chin worked for. Upon Yeo’s death, Seah Eu Chin inherited the house . The grand entrance gate both in front and at the back of the house, together with other additions were likely made in 1872 by Seah Cheo Seah. The mansion consists of 2 Teochew-style grand entrance gates (one front and one back), 3 courtyards and 2 double-storey houses. The general style and layout was adopted by Wee Ah Hood’s mansion built 6 years later. As Seah Eu Chin’s Qing official title was 中憲大夫, a fourth rank civil mandarin, this house was thus named according to Qing imperial decree as Zhong Xuan Di (中憲第）.
- House of Wee Ah Hood (1878) also known as Da Fu Di 大夫第 in Chinese. The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry bought over the mansion soon after it was formed and remains on the site since then. However, it was replaced by a new building in 1961. Modelled after Seah Eu Chin’s house.