Fort Canning, once a sought after vantage point over Singapore and rumoured to be the resting place of the spirits of ancient Malay kings, sits close to the centre of Singapore city, easy walking distance from the Quays to the south and Orchard Road to the north. It makes for a very worthwhile excursion for those weary of shopping malls and museums.
It is believed that previous to the arrival of the British there was a settlement on the hill, with local Malays considering the jungle-covered hill sacred and forbidding access — they in fact referred to it as Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill). That didn’t put the Brits off though and Raffles had a substantial amount of the hill cleared and built a bungalow on the slopes, giving himself some of the best views in town.
Following Raffles’ death, his bungalow became the residence of the colonial governor, was named Government House and the hill Government Hill. In the mid-19th century Government House was demolished to make way for the construction of the fortress, barracks, hospital and gunpowder magazines, which were in turn renamed Fort Canning (after the Governor-General of India). The construction, between 1859 and 1861, required the levelling of the top of the hill and included the gate and adjoining wall — which is all that remains standing today of the initial construction.
A later addition to Fort Canning was the Battle Box — a reinforced concrete bunker that was constructed almost 30 feet under the surface and was designed to withstand a direct hit from a bomb. The fort remained in use right through to World War II — it was in the Battle Box that the decision was made to surrender to the Japanese and the Japanese made handy use of the fort once they had taken the city. After the war the British handed it to the Singaporean military in 1963. (The Battle Box itself has been closed for renovation and when we passed by in 2015 the sign said "closed indefinitely".)
Today little remains of Fort Canning the fort, but Fort Canning the hill is still going strong. The main gate and some wall on each side remain, along with the Battle Box, but the real attractions today are the lush gardens and shady walks visitors can enjoy. Back in the day Raffles had established large spice gardens on the hill and while they are long gone, a small and interesting replica stands on the southwest side of the hill.
Walking through the gardens, rub the green leaves of P.odoratum between your fingers and take a sniff – does it remind you of a steaming bowl of laksa soup? It should – this plant is known in Singapore and Malaysia as laksa leaf, and in Vietnam as Vietnamese cilantro where it is used in salads and summer rolls. If you’ve noticed that desserts and breads in Southeast Asia are often a pale green colour, the reason is Pandanus amaryllifolius (pandan leaf) which has a sweet smell and taste that’s a bit like vanilla. You don’t have to be a botanist to appreciate the Spice Garden because each plant is clearly labelled. Small signs list the scientific names and culinary uses, as well as fun factoids like that lemongrass is also an insect repellent.
On the same side of the hill lies Fort Canning Park, which is a popular venue for live performances and open-air events. Be sure to take a look at the walls here (if you enter via the Gothic Gate from the spice gardens, turn right) which are covered with some very interesting 19th century tombstones.
While the park can get busy with events and performances, much of the time, especially on weekdays, the hill is sleepy and quiet. If you’re walking here, Fort Canning makes for an excellent break between the National Museum to the north and Chettiar Temple to the south (and The Quays beyond). While you could easily spend a full day relaxing in the park, allow at least two to three hours to wander the various trails. A number of walking trail PDFs can be downloaded from the official site.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 20th April, 2015.