Remembering Karl Van Kleef and the Van Kleef Aquarium
By Kevin Khoo, Assistant Archivist
The Van Kleef Aquarium was a landmark in the cultural consciousness of many Singaporeans for almost half a century from its opening in September 1955. Situated at the foot of Fort Canning facing River Valley Road, it was one of the most well-known aquariums in South-east Asia and a favorite haunt for many young students and families. Once an icon of Singapore's cityscape and source of joyful shared memories, the aquarium and the name 'Van Kleef' have slowly faded from the public mind since its demolishment in 1998.
As a generation of Singaporeans comes of age without acquaintance with Karl Van Kleef or his aquarium, it is appropriate to remember this man and the monument he gave to Singapore.
The Van Kleef Aquarium took its name from Karl Willem Benjamin Van Kleef, a Dutchman who resided in Singapore in the late 19th and early 20th century and ran a successful business from an office at the corner of Collyer Quay and De Souza Street.1 Van Kleef made a considerable fortune in property and stock in both Holland and Singapore, and upon his death in 1930, the net proceedings of his estates were bequeathed to the Municipal Government of Singapore for the embellishment of the Singapore town.2 In his will, drawn up in May 1929, he wrote:
"I appoint as my one and sole heir the Municipality of Singapore (Straits Settlements) which I request to apply the net proceeds obtained from my estate to the embellishment of the town and other ends whatsoever, but on no account in behalf of churches and other institutions connected with worship in general... Should the municipality of Singapore not accept the inheritance, then I appoint the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited as my one and sole heir and I express my wish
that they spend these moneys at their discretion in behalf of the Municipality of Singapore, provided no ecclesiastical institutions be benefited thereby either."3
What motivated Van Kleefs remarkable act of generosity remains a mystery, but his money was eventually used by the Colonial Government to construct the Van Kleef Aquarium at River Valley Road.
Relatively little is known of Karl Van Kleef's life. We know that he was born on the 9th of September 1854 into Dutch-Jewish family. His father was Salomon Benjamin Van Kleef, a doctor and gynaecologist, and his mother Geetruida Van Hogezand, a native of Amsterdam. The couple married in Batavia, Indonesia on the 25th of November 1850, and had four children - Karl Van Kleef, the second of the four, his elder sister Maria Elizabeth and his two younger brothers, Willem Samuel and Herman Van Kleef. Although Karl Van Kleef's name was to be associated with
an aquarium he was professionally in a very different field - he was a broker and commission agent in Singapore and a certified expert in mine drilling.5We do not know exactly which year Van Kleef came to Singapore, but he appears to have set up his office here in the late 19th century and was the owner of a bungalow at Reserved Road off Jalan Ampas. After many successful years here, Van Kleef returned to Holland in 1913 where he passed away on the 18th of June 1930 in the Dutch town of Haarlem.6
Building Plan of the Bungalow at Reserved Road off Jalan Ampas owned by Karl Van Kleef, 1905.
Source: National Archives of Singapore
Although it is difficult for many people familiar with the "Van Kleef Aquarium" to imagine Van Kleef's name appended to any other edifice, there was in fact controversy in the early 1930s over what to do with Van Kleef's bequest. Some members of the Singapore Municipal Council thought that Van Kleef's money was best spent to build a circus, others a Japanese garden, yet others a zoo, a wireless broadcasting station, artistic clock towers and ornamental drinking fountains7:
"Recommendations for the utilization of the legacy left by the late Mr. K.W.B. Van Kleef for the embellishment of the city... Mr. Elias [a municipal council member] considers that any construction or erection should be of a permanent nature and situated in a place where the public will see it. He suggests the construction of an Ornamental Park at the present Race Course site, or the making of a circus, with a central statue and fountain... or the provision of a zoo... The Honorable Che Eunos suggests the erection of a Wireless Broadcasting
Station on the roof of the Municipal Offices. Mr. Chander considers that the construction of a proper flower garden, say at the Race Course, would embellish the town... Mr. Laycock favors Mr. Elias's idea of a circus with statuary and fountains."7
The idea to use Van Kleefs money to construct an aquarium was broached by Mr E A Brown, a Municipal Council member, at a Municipal Council Committee Meeting held on the 19 September 1930:
In connection with the bequest of the late Mr KWB Van Kleef of the whole of his net estate outside the Netherlands to the Municipal Commissioners of Singapore for the embellishment of the city or other purposes, Mr Brown suggests that the idea of starting an Aquarium, the cost of which Government was prepared to share, might be revived.4
The Municipal Council was torn between the different projects proposed by its different members. By January 1932, the idea of a zoo which had initially captured the attention of many council members had become regarded as "impracticable on score of expense."9 At the same time it was reported that "the majority of the Commissioners appear[ed] favorably inclined towards the suggestion to use the Van Kleef bequest for the conversion of Mount Emily Park into a Japanese Garden".10 But just a year later in January 1933, the Municipal
Council dropped that plan and returned to Brown's idea to build an aquarium, after the Director of Fisheries, Mr. W. Birtwistle, convinced the Van Kleef Bequest Committee that constructing a public aquarium would prove both popular and profitable:11
"The [Van Kleef Bequest] Committee is unanimously agreed that the idea to utlize the Van Kleef Bequest for provision of an Aquarium in Singapore generally commends itself to them, subject to consideration of detail. Mr. W. Birtwistle, Director of Fisheries... tables full data regarding the construction cost, annual maintenance and also attendance at similar comparable institutions elsewhere, and points out that, once established, Aquaria have been found to pay for themselves. Judging from his past experience in the Fisheries Department,
he considers it will be simple and cheap to obtain both stocks of exhibits to start with and replacements... He [also] reminds the Committee of the interest shown in a small Aquarium exhibit of local sea fish at the Singapore Trade Exhibition held in January 1932... He has found the population of Singapore interested in fish."12
Birtwistle's presentation left such an impression that immediately afterwards, the Municipal Council voted to have an aquarium constructed with Van Kleef's bequest:
"After the discussion [with Mr. Birtwistle] the Committee recommend[ed]... that $55,000 of the Van Kleef Bequest be utilized for the provision of an Aquarium... [and] that any balance of the Bequest not otherwise appropriated be held in reserve as a maintenance fund - in case such should be found requisite - during the first few years of the existence of the Aquarium."13
This decision however did not end the debate, as it continued and shifted to the question of where the aquarium should be built. Initial suggestions were to have it located at either Katong or the Old Race Course area at Farrer Park.14 By 1933 the Municipal Council consensus was to have it constructed at a site between Waterloo and Bencoolen Streets.15 But in 1935, an alternative location at Fort Canning along River Valley and Tank Road was offered by the Colonial Government to the Municipal Council.16 Mr. W. Bartley, the then President of the
Municipal Council, lobbied passionately for the Fort Canning site. But his proposal was challenged by other municipal commissioners, particularly Mr. E.A. Brown and Mr. John Laycock, who preferred the original site at Waterloo and Bencoolen Street. Laycock believed that "an Aquarium in Tank Road would not be so popular and so well patronized as one situated at the corner of the old Race Course" and that "the free offer of land [by the Colonial Government at River Valley and Tank Roads] was a minor consideration." Brown insisted that "an Aquarium badly sited at Tank Road might not possibly be an embellishment of the
town in keeping with the terms of the Van Kleef Bequest." Their arguments managed to swing the Municipal Council who voted against the Fort Canning site by a margin of fifteen to five in September 1935.17
But in a meeting only a month later in October, Bartley gave a stirring speech in favor of the Fort Canning site that led to a reversal of this decision. Bartley pointed out that:
"the site with Fort Canning, in its background, [was] a most effective one for the Aquarium, and that to site it there [would] materially reduce the costs of pumping, as with storage tanks on the hill it [would] only be necessary to have single pumping, instead of triple pumping which would be necessary on a level site"18
More persuasively, he argued,
"that if the [Fort Canning] site was refused, Singapore [would] lose, probably for ever, a park of thirteen acres, well in the centre of town, and capable, because of its contours, of being developed into one of the beauty spots of Singapore"19
Bartley's arguments won over the Municipal Council and in October 1935 the Fort Canning site was chosen to house the new aquarium.20
The construction of the aquarium was delayed for years as architectural plans for the building and its surroundings were finalized and the Singapore Municipal Ordinance substantially amended to provide additional funds to cover the aquarium's projected maintenance expenses.21 Then in the late 1930s, burgeoning construction costs following political uncertainties in Europe and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 forced the Municipal Council to suspend building the aquarium.22 Japan's subsequent invasion of Malaya and Singapore
in 1941 led the plan for the aquarium to be totally shelved.
Fortunately, Van Kleef's donation survived intact through the Japanese Occupation and also managed to appreciate in value to over $350,000 by 1952.23 The site of the aquarium was changed one final time in 1952, to a spot further up River Valley Road where it was ultimately built.24 When the Van Kleef Aquarium was finally opened to the public in 1955, Singapore became the proud owner of a modern forward looking aquarium which exemplified the progressive direction the country itself aspired towards.25 At its inception, the aquarium already contained
over 6,500 marine creatures of 180 different species, some of which were of rare variety. It had tanks that recreated a variety of different marine environments - salt water, fresh water and even swamp water.26 Its architecture, designed by Singapore municipal architects, was a triumph of modern engineering.27 The building was fully air-conditioned and possessed its own water supply - it contained two underground reservoirs each capable of holding thousands of gallons of water, which were transported to the different sections of the aquarium when needed by a system of mechanical pumps.28
Even its darkened interiors captured many visitors' imagination:
On entering the exhibition hall, one gets the impression of entering a subterranean tunnel, with windows on either side. Through the windows one looks into the vastness of the sea or the confines of a lake; each with its respective life forms"29
According to one of its early curators, Mr. Teo Teck Hiang, the aquarium was "the first and only institution of its kind" in South-East Asia.30
An image of the Van Kleef Aquarium in 1960.
Source: Chiang Ker Chiu
The Van Kleef Aquarium was an immediate success. In its first year of operations it drew in over 270,000 visitors31 and gained a reputation among aquarium experts as being "one of the best" in its class worldwide.32 Steady improvements were made over the years to the aquarium. Its collection of marine species was broadened, the number of its exhibition tanks increased, the presentation of the marine specimens improved and aquarium facilities upgraded.33 The aquarium came to house many interesting sea creatures including small
sharks, poisonous lion and stone fish, piranhas, crocodiles, sea-snakes, electric eels and various exotic fishes from Africa and South America.34 Visitorship to the Van Kleef Aquarium steadily increased, peaking in the late 1970s, where the aquarium regularly received around 400,000 visitors annually.35
The Van Kleef Aquarium attracted eminent visitors, like the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia, 1963.
Crowds of visitors viewing marine exhibits installed at the entrance of the Van Kleef Aquarium, 1960.
Source: Primary Production Department
A small exhibition tank inside the Van Kleef Aquarium, 1963.
In 1986, the Van Kleef Aquarium was closed for major renovations after experiencing serious maintenance problems. Age had caught up with the grand old lady. After thirty-two years in operation, its building structure and display tanks were suffering from noticeable deterioration.36 A 1983 Primary Production Department report outlines some of these problems:
"The Aquarium has not undergone any major renovations or redevelopment in its 28 years of existence. Because of old age, many of the structures in the Aquarium have been slowly deteriorating. Many of the display tanks have begun to leak and the safety glass of some tanks have cracked. The PPD has been faced with an increasing number of maintenance problems in the upkeep of the Aquarium. The Public Works Department has recommended that the Aquarium be redeveloped to prevent further deterioration of the structures."37
Visitorship has also fallen off. There were only 248,000 visitors in 198538, where at its prime in 1979 the aquarium drew in 430,000.39 In contrast, newer attractions like the Singapore Zoo and the Singapore Bird Park were drawing in approximately a million visitors annually by the mid-1980's.40
The renovations, which were concluded by 1987, were meant to breathe new life into the old aquarium and to bring back the crowds. But the restored Van Kleef Aquarium was received with mixed reactions. The aquarium's exhibition panels were criticized as uninformative. When its management was asked if information leaflets could be distributed to visitors to make up for this oversight, it ominously responded that it could not afford to do so. Question marks were also raised on how the aquarium organized its new exhibition tanks. Visitors commented that it was not apparent
to them what theme, if any, determined how the marine creatures were put together into an environment.41 In spite of extensive renovations that cost $750,000, visitorship to the aquarium never regained its 1970s peak.42
The Van Kleef Aquarium's logo, 1980s.
Source: Singapore Tourism Board
The opening of the Underwater World Aquarium on Sentosa in 1991 sounded the death knell for the Van Kleef Aquarium. This modern oceanarium with its immersive environments and new-concept design rendered the Van Kleef Aquarium obsolete. Convinced that the Van Kleef Aquarium was technically redundant and unable to compete with Underwater World the Ministry of National Development decided to have it closed in 1991.43
The decision to close the Van Kleef Aquarium struck the Singapore public with a chord of sadness. Although attendance at the aquarium had been diminishing for years, many people recalled fond memories of the place. "In our younger days, [the Van Kleef Aquarium] was one of the few attractions around. We're going to miss it. There's no other such place in Singapore" remembered Mr. Thomas Wong.44 "The aquarium has been here for more than thirty years. The building is like a piece of heritage for me" said Mr. James Tan.45 It was "a beautiful aquarium...
a delight for kids like us to visit" recalled Mr. Tan Wee Him.46 Dr Ngiam Tong Tau, who was the Director of the Primary Production Department and later the CEO of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), expressed regret at its passing in an Oral History interview conducted by the National Archives of Singapore with him in 2006:
As a child, I liked to go to Van Kleef you know, because... It's just here. In fact, it's very nearby but it's no more. You go in there for a couple of hours and it's usually very dark in there. You just walk through and see the aquarium, the various aquariums of fish and then you see all the description, the scientific explanations and so on, and that was very useful for students. And right in the city, very accessible for all the students to come to. So we wanted one of those but it didn't come about... [Underwater World] is not an aquarium. Underwater World is a sea life,
marine life attraction. It's spectacular. That's about it... I'm on the advisory board for Underwater World. I'm not putting Underwater World down, you know, but it is a different thing from a real aquarium."47
On its closing day, nearly five thousand Singaporeans turned up to bid goodbye to the Van Kleef Aquarium.48
Like the Van Kleef Aquarium before it, the technically advanced Underwater World attracted famous visitors, here the former-Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The Underwater World signaled the end for the Van Kleef Aquarium, 1994.
Efforts were soon made to revive the aquarium, perhaps out of a broad public desire to spare the building from demolishment.49 The aquarium compound was first leased out to a private company, World of Aquarium, to run a commercial centre for the promotion and display of local ornamental fish.50 But poor business ended this venture in 1993.51 Several months later, the building reopened as The Fort Canning Aquarium, but this enterprise was similarly short lived.52 The aquarium closed its doors for the last time in December 1996,
and two years later the building was torn down.53
In his poem 'The New World', the Singapore poet Cyril Wong wrote,"what is left to bookmark our history... who remembers the Van Kleef Aquarium..."?54 A symbol of the progressive 'new world' at one point in time, progress in turn demanded an end to the Van Kleef Aquarium. In a perceptive commentary in the 1991 Sunday Times, Tan Sai Soong wrote:
"For a nation with progress at the top of its agenda, it follows that old places have to go if they are in the way of new developments which can use the same sites more efficiently. It also follows that there should not be too much duplication, especially of facilities which cannot compete with more sophisticated and better-equipped newcomers... This said, it must be similarly recognized that countries which are small and new to boot inevitably have fewer monuments for the nation to focus its attachments on. This means that even if a handful of those precious
memory-making locations foes, the effect would be more shattering than in states which could boast a host of landmarks spanning centuries and catering to all affections."55
Perhaps the loss of part of our heritage is necessary part of growth in our island city of Singapore. But a place remains in memories and sentiments to recall these symbols of our cultural past which our physical environment no longer accommodates.
1The Straits Times, 13th Sept 1930, NL 639
2Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (5 Jan 1931 - 15 Feb 1932), Minutes of Meeting of Van Kleef Bequest Committee, 5th Oct 1931, NA 435
3Transcript of the will of Karl Van Kleef, 8th May 1929, in Primary Production Department, "Van Kleef Aquarium", File No. 134/64 Vol.1, MND 1177
4Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (6 Jan 1930 30 Jan 1931), Minutes of Meeting of Van Kleef Bequest Committee, 19th September 1930, NA 434
5This biographical information was generously given to us by Professor Tommy Koh who conducted his own research on Karl Van Kleef at the Central Bureau of Genealogy at The Hague in 2007. Special thanks to Mr. Martin Spaan of the Central Bureau of Genealogy whose expert familiarity with the Bureau's collections aided invaluably with the research.
6The Straits Times, 13th Sept 1930, NL 639
7Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (6 Jan 1930 - 30 Jan 1931), Minutes of Meeting of Van Kleef Bequest Committee, 18th Nov 1930, NA 434, and Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners 6 Jan 1930 - 30 Jan 1931), Minutes of Meeting of Van Kleef Bequest Committee, 19th Jan 1931, NA 434
8Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (6 Jan 1930 - 30 Jan 1931), Minutes of Meeting of Van Kleef Bequest Committee, 18th Nov 1930, NA 434
9Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (6 Jan 1930 - 30 Jan 1931), Minutes of Meeting of Van Kleef Bequest Committee, 18th Nov 1930, NA 434
10Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (8 Jan 1931 - 30 Jan 1933), Minutes of Meeting of Van Kleef Bequest Committee, 18th Jan 1932, NA 435
11Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (8 Jan 1931 - 30 Jan 1933), Minutes of Meeting of Van Kleef Bequest Committee, 24th Jan 1933, NA 435
12Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (8 Jan 1931 - 30 Jan 1933), Minutes of Meeting of Van Kleef Bequest Committee, 24th Jan 1933, NA 435
14Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (6 Jan 1930 - 30 Jan 1931), Minutes of Meeting of Van Kleef Bequest Committee, 18th Nov 1930, NA 435 and Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (4 Jan 1933 - 29 Jan 1934), 28th Apr 1933, NA 435
15Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (4 Jan 1933 - 29 Jan 1934), 28th Apr 1933, NA 435
16Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (5 Jan 1934 - 25 Jan 1935), 14th Dec 1934, NA 436
17Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (4 Jan 1935 - 31 Jan 1935), 27th Sept 1935, NA 436
18Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (4 Jan 1935 - 31 Jan 1935), 25th Oct 1935, NA 436
19Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (4 Jan 1935 - 31 Jan 1935), 25th Oct 1935, NA 436
20Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (4 Jan 1935 - 31 Jan 1935), 27th Sept 1935, NA 436, Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (4 Jan 1935 - 31 Jan 1935), 25th Oct 1935, NA 436 and Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (4 Jan 1935 - 31 Jan 1935), 29th Nov 1935, NA 436
21Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (3 Jan 1936 - 29 Jan 1937), 9th Nov 1936, NA 437, Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (5 Jan 1937 - 28 Jan 1938), 12th July 1937, NA 437, Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (5 Jan 1937 - 28 Jan 1938), 23th July 1937, NA 437, Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (5 Jan 1937 - 28 Jan 1938), 27th Sept 1937, NA 437
22Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (5 Jan 1937 - 28 Jan 1938), 12th July 1937, NA 437, Municipal Fund of Singapore Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners (5 Jan 1940 - 31 Jan 1941), 5th Feb 1940, NA 440
23Minutes of the Proceedings of the City Council of Singapore Minutes of Proceedings of a Special (Budget) Meeting of the City Council of Singapore (2 Oct 1952 - 30 Dec 1952), 29th Oct 1952, NA 462
24Minutes of the Proceedings of the City Council of Singapore Minutes of Proceedings of the Estates and Fire Brigade Committee (2 Oct 1952 - 30 Dec 1952), 20th Oct 1952, NA 462
25Singapore Free Press Supplement on the Van Kleef Aquarium, "Van Kleef Aquarium - Another Fine Landmark for Singapore", 8th Sept 1955
26Singapore Free Press Supplement on the Van Kleef Aquarium, "Van Kleef Aquarium - Another Fine Landmark for Singapore", 8th Sept 1955