The Former Tao Nan School
One of the finest examples of adaptive reuse in the civic district is the Peranakan Museum at Armenian Street. It first began as the Asian Civilisations Museum in 1996, which showcased various aspects of Chinese culture and civilisation – fitting as homage to its building history as one of Singapore’s oldest Chinese schools, Tao Nan School.
The brainchild of Hokkien Huay Kuan, Tao Nan is one of six modern schools set up by the Hokkien association. The education system of the existing Chongwen Ge and Chui Eng Free School had become outdated, so a group of Chinese merchants decided to create a modern Chinese school for the children of Hokkien immigrants. Therefore, Tao Nan was born on 18 November 1906.
Tao Nan School initially operated from the rented home of the late Tan Kim Ching on North Bridge Road. The son of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, he had sizeable business interests in Siam and was a member of the Royal Court of Siam. He was appointed the First Siamese Consul in Singapore by King Mongku in 1863 and later Consul-General by King Chulalongkorn in 1885. His home that Tao Nan occupied was called Siam House, as the King and Queen of Siam had previously visited and resided there during their visit to Singapore in 1890.
It was another Chinese philanthropist, Tan Kah Kee, who pushed for the school’s relocation to a larger purpose-built compound. Construction for the three-storey building at Armenian Street began in 1910 with funds coming from the Chinese community. Tao Nan School moved to Armenian Street upon the building’s completion in 1912.
The Tao Nan building was designed in an eclectic-classical style, with generous skylight entering the central atrium. Symmetrical staircases on both sides of the atrium led to corridors and classrooms on other levels. To accommodate the heat, large arched verandahs were built and high ceilings were erected for better ventilation.
Although Tao Nan was founded by the Hokkien association, it opened its doors to non-Hokkien children as well. It also became the first school to change its teaching language from Hokkien to Mandarin in 1916, due to Tan Kah Kee’s vision of Mandarin as a unifying language for all dialect groups in Singapore. Tao Nan accepted students of all classes and social statuses, from the children of street hawkers to the wealthy.
Today Tao Nan holds a reputation as a prestigious primary school. This may have to do with the two cast iron eagle statues at the main entrance of the old Tao Nan building. Little is known of their purpose and origin except the ying (鹰) in “eagle” has the same pronunciation as the ying (英) in “elite”. Birds of prey such as eagles also symbolise guardians or protectors in fengshui terms. The eagles were moved with the school to the new Marine Parade campus but were recalled to Armenian Street during the restoration in 1996. Taiwanese sculptor and conservator Mr Chern Lian Shan was specially commissioned to restore these eagles to their glory days.
During the 1970s, the government’s urban renewal project shifted families out of the city centre, leaving schools in the area deserted. There were only 100 students and six teachers at Tao Nan School at one point. In 1976, the Hokkien Huay Kuan decided to relocate the school to the suburbs, where there would be a larger pool of students and more space for the school to expand and modernise. In 1982, Tao Nan moved to Marine Parade, where it still remains today.
The Armenian Street premises were left vacant for ten years in a state of disrepair. In 1991, the first wing of the Asian Civilisations Museum was proposed of the building. Extensive restoration and repair works began in 1994 with the original elements retained as much as possible – or otherwise replicated.
During the restoration exercise, the main atrium in the lobby was retained, while classrooms were converted into galleries. A new three-storey rear extension block with basement was added to cater to the needs of a museum. Restoration was eventually completed in 1996.
The Asian Civilisations Museum at Armenian Street closed at the end of 2005 to be redeveloped into a new museum with a focus on the eclectic Peranakan culture. Today it houses the Peranakan Museum, which was opened in April 2008.
The Hokkien Huay Kuan was an association set up by the early Chinese immigrants who sailed south to Singapore in search of opportunities. They set up schools for their future generations as a way of contributing to the community and society at large. Tao Nan School (道南学校) embodies their spirit of bringing the Chinese way to the south.