That much of the building’s history has been recorded and can be found online without too much trouble. I’m trying to assemble a better picture, mostly from anecdotal information offered by the neighborhood’s older residents, who’ve stopped by to check out the newly-revived icon, as told to the bar’s current staff. My assumption is that the Colonial’s current claim of being “established in 1924” is accurate, as it must have existed in some form to serve patrons such as the governor. Whether or not it continued to operate up until the Japanese Occupation of World War II is uncertain.
During the occupation, I am told the Ellison Building was commandeered by the Japanese army for use as one of their headquarters, which would make sense, given the proximity of the place to the Jalan Besar Stadium where the infamous “Sook Ching” screenings and executions took place. My knowledge of this period in history is regrettably weak, not having been fortunate enough to watch any of Channel 8’s many Chinese drama serials set during the war (2). In any case, I recommend reading the aforelinked article. As many as 100,000 people are said to have been killed by the Japanese in a matter of weeks, with one source claiming 30 million victims throughout Asia.
When asked to confirm whether the Ellison was indeed a Japanese army HQ, my grandmother replied: “We were too busy hiding and trying to survive then to pay a visit to the Japanese headquarters.” In my opinion, there was no need for the sarcasm; I did ask nicely.
At some point after the war, the Colonial was resurrected and was known to have been in business at least between the “60s and 80s”, according to the current manager. I can attest to not having seen the bar during any of the years where I shuttled up and down Bukit Timah on my way to Sim Lim Square, which is to say all of the last decade. If it was, it stayed hidden behind the signage for an Indian eatery and a second-storey roach motel for backpackers. This post-war period is where most of my questions about the Colonial are concerned. Does anyone remember it? Under what circumstances did it close? On October 24 2009, the newest version was unveiled with little fanfare, incongruously positioned between a decaying Indian newsagent and a tactical military equipment supply store. Diagonally across the street, another remodeled local icon, Tekka Centre, is now a floundering mall called The Verge.
The first thing one notices is the snazzy, illustrated logo of a helmeted British army man on the signboard and on posters throughout the premises. These materials have obviously been designed with some care and effort, although they are not at the level of say, Leo Burnett’s work for the Ya Kun Kaya company (3). Several large LCD television screens display a mix of live sports and insipid cable fare such as Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, while the music is the kind of radio-derived playlist one might expect to find Jason Mraz and Norah Jones on. Volume levels are conversation friendly.
Few colonial touches are present in the decor scheme, if you count the black and white floor tiles arranged in a loose checkered pattern, but for the most part it’s comtemporary with strange design contradictions. The black bar counter is sleek and frames a liquor shelf dramatically lit from above, but other furnishings are on the cheap side. There’s a pool table, foosball table, and touchscreen games machine in an adjacent wing, which is what you’d expect in an above-average pub, but the roof doesn’t fully extend to cover this section. You actually see trees and the sky above, while an intact original spiral staircase winds its way through like some ancient tree embraced by a hippie boutique hotel built around it. No doubt, the place has a charm of its own, but it’s raw while trying not to be. I sense the hand of a younger entrepreneur behind all this, which leads to interesting questions like, “Why bring this bar back?”, “What’s their connection to the Ellison?”, and “Ellen DeGeneres? Really?”
But we could sit here all day talking about aesthetic details and whether or not the specter of colonial rule makes this an appropriate place for a foreign man to be seen with a local woman, or we could talk about how absolutely cheap the booze is. My friends, it is CHEAP. When I first wandered in a week ago, Happy Hour (till 8pm) prices were an incredible $15 for two jugs of Tiger beer. That’s draught beer, and yes, one jug (four glasses worth) for $7.50. They can’t keep this up, I screamed aloud, they’d be crazy to sell drinks at these prices! And so when I returned today I found that they’re not crazy, just a little unsound. The new Happy Hour deal is a single jug for $11, which is still cheaper than any hawker center or kopitiam I can think of. For context, that’s less than the cost of a pint in most bars where you’ll find white people drinking today. Colonialism is dead, long live the Colonial!
(1) According to a 2007 article at JewishExponent.com, and the Singapore Tourism Board’s Little India website.
(2) I hear The Little Nyonya is a good example, if one were so inclined.
(3) Full disclosure, one of my former bosses worked on them.