Mandalay Villa at Amber Road was built in 19021 by Lee Cheng Yan (b. 1841–d. 19112), a prominent businessman from the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) community. The beautiful bungalow with its fanciful facade was well known because of the parties thrown by Lee Cheng Yan’s daughter-in-law, Tan Teck Neo, more widely known as Mrs Lee Choon Guan. These parties brought the Chinese and British communities together in the days when they seldom mixed.3
Lee Cheng Yan was born in Malacca in 1841.4 After he moved to Singapore, he started a business at Telok Ayer Street5 and made his mark in property, trading and finance.6 At the beginning of the 20th century, he built four holiday villas: Magenta Cottage at Killiney Road; Hampstead Bath in Upper Bukit Timah; Mandalay Villa at Amber Road; and a seaside bungalow at Changi Point.7
When Lee Cheng Yan died in 1911, his son, Lee Choon Guan (b. 1868–d. 1924, Singapore), took over the family business.8 At the time, the younger Lee was a successful merchant and financier9 After the passing of his first wife, Lee Choon Guan eventually remarried Tan Teck Neo, daughter of prominent businessman Tan Keong Saik, in 1900.10 With her, Lee Choon Guan had two children; a son, Pang Soo, and a daughter, Poh Neo.11 Lee Choon Guan had two sons and two daughters from his first marriage.12 Tan grew up in a privileged environment but that did not stop her from being involved in charity work, which put her in the spotlight. She founded the Chinese Women’s Association in 1915.13 In 1919, she was presented with the insignia of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by then Governor Sir Arthur Young for her work in the cause of charity during World War I.14
Lee Choon Guan and his second wife lived at Mandalay Villa.15 When Lee Choon Guan died in 1924 at the age of 56, his wife became the sole owner of the villa.16 Mrs Lee Choon Guan’s annual birthday party at the Mandalay Villa was popular among the prominent Singapore personalities and Malay royalty.17 The fishermen of Kampong Amber also held their annual parade on her birthday as a show of appreciation for the family’s kindness in allowing them to live rent-free on the land that the family owned.18 Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew noted Mandalay Villa in his memoirs as the place where he proposed to his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, after attending a party there.19
Mandalay Villa was located at No. 29 Amber Road, by the Katong seaside.20 It was a two-storey bungalow,21 erected over 53,000 sq ft and extended into a sea pavilion.22 Designed by the firm Lermit & Westerhouse,23 it distinguished itself from other Katong seaside bungalows with its grand façade, intricate carvings and huge garden.24 The entrance to the bungalow was preceded by a long driveway, past a massive and beautiful wrought-iron gate, with a sentry box to its left.25 The garden was studded with two gigantic angsana trees26, a silvery statue of Eros27 and many palm trees.28 The semi-circular entrance porch or veranda had three arches and no doors.29 Furniture at the veranda comprised a round marble table and several rattan armchairs.30 Long garden benches were placed against the columns of the veranda.31 This arrangement allowed at least 14 people to be seated in the veranda quite comfortably and the sea breeze made it one of the coolest parts of the house as well as Mrs Lee Choon Guan’s favourite spot.32
The house had 13 rooms for 14 members of the family.33 The main dining room, surrounded by tall windows with vertical iron security bars, was furnished with teak cabinets where the silverware, crystal and crockery were displayed.34 A covered walkway led to a huge detached kitchen.35 The open grounds surrounding the house were expansive.36 A rose garden with a fountain was located between the driveway and the sea.37 The main garden, which was the main venue for Mrs Lee Choon Guan’s numerous parties, also used to have a grass tennis court.38 A tiled footpath between the two lawns led past the sea wall to a pavilion built over the sea.39 The pavilion had a living room and two bedrooms gilded by Italian artists.40 Ahead of the war, the pavilion was demolished by British forces in anticipation of the Japanese invading from the sea.41 As the seaside structures would block the sight of advancing Japanese forces, a large part of the house was also blown up.42 During the Japanese Occupation, Mandalay Villa served as the residence of a Japanese general.43 The Lee family left for India and returned after the war to a desolate house looted and destroyed beyond recognition.44 Nevertheless, the family made Mandalay Villa their home again.
In the 1970s, the government acquired 20,000 sq ft of Mandalay Villa’s land for the construction of a roundabout between Amber and Marine Parade roads.45 The death of Mrs Lee Choon Guan at the age of 100 in 1978 dealt a huge blow to Mandalay Villa.46 The bungalow was left vacant as many of its occupants married and moved into their own homes.47 Eventually, Mandalay Villa was sold and demolished in 1983.48
1. Peter Lee and Jennifer Chen, Rumah Baba: Life in a Peranakan House (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 1998), 27. (Call no. RSING 305.89510595 LEE)
2. “Death of Mr. Cheng Yan,” Straits Times, 19 May 1911, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Mainly About Malayans,” Straits Times, 27 December 1931, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Singapore Chronicles (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine Pub, 1995), 102. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
5. Singapore Chronicles, 102.
6. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 25.
7. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 25.
8. Lee Kip Lin, The Singapore House 1819–1942 (Singapore: Times Editions [for] Preservation of Monuments Board, 1988), 192 (Call no. RSING 728.095957 LEE); “Death of Mr. Cheng Yan.”
9. Singapore Chronicles, 102.
10. Lee, Singapore House 1819–1942, 192.
11. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 25.
12. Singapore Chronicles, 106.
13. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 25.
14. “The Singapore Free Press Thursday, March 27, 1911,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 27 March 1919, 4; “Mainly About Malayans.”
15. Lee, Singapore House 1819–1942, 192.
16. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 27.
17. “Mrs Lee Choon Guan,” Straits Times, 19 December 1931, 12;” Mrs Lee Choon Guan,” Straits Times, 19 December 1932, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Lee, Singapore House 1819–1942, 193.
19. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions: Straits Times Press, 2015), 92–93. (Call no. RSING 959.5705092 LEE)
20. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 25.
21. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 27.
22. Lily Kong and T.C. Chang, Joo Chiat: A Living Legacy (Singapore: Joo Chiat Citizens' Consultative Committee in association with National Archives of Singapore, 2001), 122. (Call no. RSING q959.57 KON-[HIS])
23. Lee, Singapore House 1819–1942, 192.
24. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 122–23.
25. Lee, Rumah Baba, 27.
26. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 123.
27. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 30.
28. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat: A Living Legacy, 123.
29. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 27.
30. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 27.
31. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 27.
32. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 27.
33. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 122.
34. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 30.
35. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 30.
36. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 30.
37. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 30.
38. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 30.
39. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 31.
40. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 31.
41. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 31.
42. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 123.
43. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 123.
44. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 123.
45. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 31.
46. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 122.
47. Lee and Chen, Rumah Baba, 31.
48. Lee, Singapore House 1819–1942, 193.
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