One could make easy jibes about flyovers, high-rise buildings, air-conditioners or a culture where some of the greatest indulgences in life are absent (such as small talk and jibber-jabber), but to be honest it was the ALL THE SAMEISHNESS OF IT. Singapore could be anywhere in the world! If it were a colour it would be beige. If it were a celebrity chef it would be Bill Granger. If it were a song it would be ‘You say it best (when you say nothing at all)’ by Ronan Keating. Some days, when a murky pall would surround Bukit Timah after a particularly vigorous burning sesh of old growth forest in Malaysia, I just wanted to LAY DOWN and WEEP. Sometimes I did!
It was not all bad though. I met lovely people there, many of whom I’m friends with to this day. You could eat your way through every hawker centre in that place for years and still not have sampled all its saucy delights. Their best-known nightclubs were known as ‘The Boom Boom Room’ and ‘Four Floors of Whores’. It is close to more interesting countries. And then there is the Mitre.
Crumbling, overgrown, haunted, the Mitre Hotel was the exact opposite of Singapore. If you think of Scarlett wandering through Tara after the burning of the South, it is something like the Mitre. If you think of the dangers of rousting about at the Tip as a child, it is the Mitre. If you think of the houses in the worst horror movies you’ve ever seen (think Texas Chainsaw Massacre), it is the Mitre.
Located around the corner from one of the busiest bar districts in the city, this bizarre hideyhole was sometimes hard to find. Most taxi drivers could take you there if you barked something like ‘Mohammed Sultan, up Killiney, stop here.’ You’d park outside a stone entrance covered in dense, rotting vegetation. It was very likely it was after midnight and you were horribly drunk.
Once you staggered up the long, unlit driveway, machete in hand and beating off vines as they snaked towards your ankles, you’d come to an old white, colonial mansion plonked absurdly in a clearing. Looking above the Banyan treeline you’d see a ring of high rises around the entire block and gaze around you awhile, with the drunkard’s assurance that everything is as it should be. If you fancied a wee you’d have lurch into the jungle, packet of tissues in hand.
Once you managed to rouse him from his deckchair, an old Uncle would pass cheap beers through the grate locked at the entrance to the hotel. Under the fluorescent light in the lobby you’d merrily continue your evening, as if Chjimes or Zouk never existed. Locals and expats would emerge blearily from the darkness throughout the night. Perched on a busted office chair or an empty suitcase, you’d feel right at home.
Opinions are divided as to how old the Mitre actually is. Some sources say 90 years old, others say it’s only 62. The version I was told (and prefer to believe) is that it’s over 150 years old and was once inhabited by the Japanese, who used it as their headquarters when they occupied Singapore during the Second World War. The ghost of a woman in red was said to shake you awake, or shove you out of the way if you stayed there overnight. Commercial divers from the surrounding oil rigs used to rent out the rooms, and an Aussie guy had lived there for decades. The cops were always raiding the place and taking away the liquor license. We always came back later for the warm beer.
Before midnight you could get into the bar area with its ancient graffiti, faded flags and rats behind (or inside) the brocade sofas. One night I wandered about the Mitre in a daze; it was like the aftermath of a tsunami.
I saw rooms and rooms of broken furniture piled up to the ceiling, damp newspapers, fans bent at crazy angles, peeling flakes of paint like dead skin, rotting carpets, boarded-up windows, moisture emanating out of every decaying hole. I tiptoed up the central staircase and put my eye to the cracks in every door. One door flipped open where I stood, and I had to stop myself from screaming loudly and flapping downstairs. I crept to the window to look out – the broken wooden shutters were damp to the touch, and I leant out in the tropical air to listen to the city sounds above and the jungle sounds below.
The Straits Times reported that the legal battles over the Mitre had been festering since 1996. After the first owners died, the remaining Chiam family members had fought over the land, with a recent court ruling ordering all proprietors off the land and all 40,000 sq ft of prime land to be sold via public tender. Chiam Heng Hsien’s (the long-suffering Uncle of the piece) lost his home too; his appeal for compensation and to stay on the property indefinitely was thrown out of court.
It gets even worse. The Business Times reported last year that the Mitre was sold for $122 million to Heeton Holdings. It’s been zoned for residential use, with a maximum 10-storey height limit, and can be developed up to 110 units. Here’s a ghastly quote from Danny Low, the COO and Executive Director of Heeton: “Killiney is a choice prime area for upwardly mobile locals and expatriates, as it is right in the heart of Singapore’s shopping and entertainment scene. We see great potential for this freehold land parcel, and plan to redevelop it into a distinctive residential landmark, offering exquisite, smaller-sized apartments best suited for inner-city living.”
It’s times like these you need a cane.
Keep a weather eye out for Choking on Candy – the author is living with me now. He’s uploading his own recollections of the Mitre Hotel this very week.
Fantastic Mitre Hotel photos by Yip Choon Hong here.