Learning > Nostalgia

New life for old barracks

Miranda Yeo on 16 May 2015

The Straits Times


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Till today, Mr Lam Chun See, 63, can recall the tough physical training, lectures and exams he went through at what was known in the 1970s as Gillman Camp.


"The physical training was so intense that some trainees suffered slipped discs," he said. The then 25-year-old was stationed at the camp in 1977 for a four-month combat engineer training course during his national service.


The camp was the headquarters of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Combat Engineers from 1971 to 1984, after Gillman Barracks - the colonial name for the site - was bought from the British after the war for just $1.


When Mr Lam, now a freelance management consultant, revisited his old army camp in 2010, he was surprised to find it completely transformed into a bohemian cluster of shops and restaurants.


Gillman Barracks was renamed Gillman Village from 1996 to 2010, when it housed as many as 14 tenants running an eclectic mix of bars, restaurants, education centres and furniture shops.


In 2012, the place reopened as a contemporary arts cluster that draws diverse crowds from art and history buffs to couples on a weekend date. It also reverted to its old name of Gillman Barracks.


Tenants say its colonial facades, lush foliage and offbeat location give it a rustic and laidback vibe.


The flipside, though, is its secluded and inaccessible location.


The Straits Times reported last month that a third of the galleries at Gillman Barracks have decided not to renew their leases, citing low human traffic and poor sales.


New initiatives to raise visitorship and invigorate the enclave have been introduced, and tenants say they have been successful.


Non-profit volunteer group Friends of the Museum launched free history guided tours on the first Saturday this month in conjunction with Singapore HeritageFest 2015.


The new history tours complement existing weekly art tours and will become a monthly affair due to positive response, said volunteer guide Maylene Lai. The first tour attracted two groups of around 20 people each.


"We observed that the history tours attracted more young Singaporeans. These new tours could also bring both art and history buffs together," Ms Lai, 60, added.


Nuggets of interesting information about the landscape, structures and former occupants at Gillman are shared during the tours.


The ravine along Alexandra Road, for instance, was where SAF combat officers practised constructing and demolishing a Bailey bridge - a portable wood and steel bridge that, when set up, could even carry tanks.


Mr Lam said the spot, referred to by trainees as "The Gap", brought back bittersweet memories. "The bridge we had to construct was designed for larger British soldiers to carry, so it was very challenging for us, with our smaller Asian builds," he added.


Now, a pedestrian bridge connects Alexandra Road to bar and restaurant Timbre across the grassy depression.


The barracks also had a cinema and swimming pool within its grounds, which provided entertainment for the British soldiers.


Mr Lam said the cinema was no longer functional when the SAF took over, but the swimming pool was still usable.


"The pool was popular every Thursday evening, when the nurses from the Institute of Dental Health across the road would come over to swim," he said with a chuckle. A field of thick vegetation now stands in its place.


Aside from the new tours, Art After Dark, an event that takes place once every two months, was launched in January. It has drawn more people, not just art buffs.

Galleries launch new shows at the event and extend their opening hours. Special programmes are put together and pop-up eateries provide food for visitors.


Yeo Workshop gallery director Amelia Gerick said events like Art After Dark have brought more foot traffic - up to thousands - through their doors.


"These events help the public get a better understanding of what Gillman Barracks is really about," she added.


Founder and director of Fost Gallery Stephanie Fong said that while sales are not directly related to foot traffic, both have gone up since she first joined the Gillman enclave in 2012.


"In the past year, there have been more visitors who are here because they are curious about art and we welcome that," she said.


The newest kid on the block, Yavuz Gallery, which moved to Gillman in September, has seen a threefold increase in sales and foot traffic compared with its previous location in Bugis, said gallery director Stella Chang.


"The art community here makes it a big draw for those looking specifically for art and also those just exploring on the weekends," she said.


Food and beverage outlets are also diversifying their offerings to provide more mid-range fare.


The latest addition, Red Baron, opened this month. Owner Prashant Somosundram said the aim was to create a casual dining space. "We wanted to be the familiar neighbourhood cafe that we felt Gillman was lacking."


Meanwhile, restaurant Naked Finn moved to a larger space and transformed its old space into Nekkid, a bar that sells drinks and small plates.


The Economic Development Board, one of the developers of Gillman Barracks, said another cafe and former Gillman Village tenant Handlebar are slated to open later this year. There are also plans to introduce more art-related businesses to the enclave to diversify the experience.


Mr Lam is nostalgic about the structures that have disappeared from the barracks, such as the eight accommodation blocks that were designed for the tropics, with thick walls and high ceilings. Only Block 9 remains.


"But I'm glad that the place has been conserved and given a new lease of life instead of becoming another high-rise condominium," he said.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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