The Great Southern Hotel
Picture a Chinatown in the 1930s: a building reaches from the low-rise shophouse landscape seemingly for the skies. It was only six storeys high, yet it was mammoth as compared to the neighbouring two- and three-storey shophouses. In fact when Nam Tin Hotel (Southern Sky in Cantonese) was built in 1936, it became the tallest building in Chinatown and one of the tallest on the island.
Better known as the Great Southern Hotel, the Swan & Maclaren-designed building was located at the junction of Eu Tong Sen Street and Cross Street. This was the same architectural firm behind numerous icons built during the colonial period, such as the Raffles Hotel and the Victoria Memorial Hall and Theatre. The building owner, Lum Chang Holdings, leased the units to other shops and businesses, including its anchor tenant, Great Southern Hotel.
The building would become collectively known as the Great Southern Hotel. It was operated by the Cantonese and catered to mostly Chinese travellers. The first storey at the Great Southern Hotel comprised of shops while the hotel was on the second and third storey. The owner’s office occupied the fourth. What gave Great Southern Hotel prominence were the Southern Restaurant and Southern Cabaret on the fifth storey and the roof terrace.
The open-air Southern Cabaret was a place for the high society, with frequent visits by celebrities from China and Hong Kong. Opium and fine liquor were on the menu, as were opera and song performances. Guests could also purchase tea dance coupons to exchange for a few dances with the so-called taxi girls (hired dance partners).
Many also visited the Great Southern Hotel for a bird’s eye view of Chinatown. It also featured an elevator, which was a novelty in Singapore. It was then the first Chinese hotel in Singapore with a lift.
Crimes were frequent occurrences. The hotel once had its license revoked in 1960 on grounds that it had been used for immoral purposes. Its license was re-approved two years later but it gradually lost out to competition from the growing hospitality industry in Singapore.
In 1993, Lum Chang Holdings sold the building to Yu Kwok Chun, the head of a Hong Kong-based multi-national business empire, Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium. As the building had already been gazetted for conservation, the façade was retained and only the interiors were changed to accommodate an open layout suitable for a department store. A three-storey extension was added at the rear.
The Great Southern Hotel was renamed Yue Hwa Building and Yue Hwa Chinese Products department store was opened on 9 October 1996. The building was awarded the 1997 URA Heritage Award for its restoration work.
Once a giant towering over the rest, the former Great Southern Hotel is now dwarfed by the buildings of OG, People’s Park Complex and Centre, and the Upper Cross Street flats. But for now, it takes on a new lease of life as the Yue Hwa Building.