By Daniel Seifert
One of Singapore's many historic mansions recently celebrated its 100th birthday. Constructed in 1909 and finished in 1910, the Danish Seamen's Church, located on Mount Faber, is recognisable by its red-and-white façade and unusual combination of styles.
The two-storey bungalow has been known as the Seamen's Church since 1985, but when it was first built it was known as Golden Bell Mansion, a sumptuous private residence owned by Tan Boo Liat. He named the house after his grandfather, Tan Kim Ching, whose name translates to Golden Bell. Boo Liat was the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, one of Singapore's richest men and earliest philanthropists. Much of the family's wealth was based on Tan Tock Seng's shrewd business dealings, which saw him owning prime areas of land on the island, including orchards, plantations and shophouses.
Tan Boo Liat was equally successful. An equestrian enthusiast, he owned a stable of racehorses. In 1898, one of the horses, Vanitas, took top place at the Viceroy's Cup in Calcutta. The win netted Tan Boo Liat $100,000.
Designed with some elements of colonial style, Golden Bell Mansion had four bedrooms, a billiard room, a smoking room and a dining room. Wee Moh Teck, then a well-known architect, designed the mansion. Its distinctive façade, done in the Edwardian style, is known as 'blood-and-bandages' for the colour of the red bricks and white plaster. The mix of styles incorporates Straits Chinese influences and even a Thai stupa, a nod to Tan Boo Liat's strong links with Thailand — he was on close terms with the King of Thailand and in 1920 was awarded an honorary title by the royal family.
Tan Boo Liat, who was President of the Singapore Kuomintang, allowed Dr Sun Yat-sen, founder of the political party, to stay at Golden Bell Mansion when he visited Singapore in 1911. In February of 1912 Dr Sun's wife and three children also stayed at the house. When Tan Boo Liat died in 1934, the house was sold.
Sun Yat-sen is not the only famous leader who has trodden the floors of the historic house. In 2010 the Danish Crown Prince Frederik paid his respects to the church, which opens its doors to the more than 1,500 members of the Danish community on the island. The church began leasing the property in 1984.
Reverend Kirsten Eistrup, the current church pastor, lives in the house, where Sunday services are held. The Danish Seamen's Church has 53 branches around the world. Singapore, along with Hong Kong and Pelepas, Malaysia, is one of three Asian locations for the Protestant organisation.
Due to its rich history and striking architecture, the mansion was given conservation status in 2005. As such its defining features and frontage cannot be altered. This month, more than 50 descendants of Tan Tock Seng visited the mansion to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The visitors included guest of honour Sam Tan, mayor of Central Singapore. During the session, Mr Tan unveiled a plaque marking the special occasion. Some of the descendants, such as Ms Jalna Tan, had not been to the house in 69 years.
The descendants also paid a visit to the Peranakan museum, where they presented a copy of the family genealogy and a portrait of Tan Kim Ching, Tan Boo Liat's grandfather.
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