Arthur Oakley Coltman

Some time ago on this blog I wrote about Brigadier General Arthur Benison Hubback who designed some of Malaysia’s most famous buildings such as the KL Railway Station and Masjid Jamek.

Another British architect, Arthur Oakley Coltman, also left his mark on Kuala Lumpur. He worked with the architectural firm Booty Edwards & Partners in Malaya from 1925 to 1957, a time which included the Art Deco period and this style is reflected in many of his works.

Here are Coltman’s best known buildings in KL:

  • Clock Tower

Clock Tower Market Square KL

This clock tower is located in the Old Market Square (Medan Pasar Besar) in the heart of KL. It was commissioned to commemorate the coronation of King George VI in 1937 but the memorial plaques were removed following Independence. The sunburst motif on the lower panels is typical of Art Deco design. The clock tower has recently had a much-needed facelift after years of neglect and vandalism but it still looks rather drab and I see it has weeds growing out of the top.  The clock faces, presumably not the originals, are made by Seiko.

  • OCBC Building

OCBC Building Kuala Lumpur

More attractive, in my opinion, is the OCBC building, located on the same square as the Clock Tower and also built in 1937. It was designed with basement parking for bicycles. The set back ground floor provides shade for pedestrians and is an Art Deco version of the five foot way found in traditional shophouses.

  • Oriental Building

Oriental Building KL

This was the tallest building in Kuala Lumpur when it was built in the 1930’s. It housed Radio Malaya and some say the design looks like a 1930’s style radio, similar to this one perhaps.1930's radio

One of the upper four floors was used by the Oriental Government Security Life Assurance Company whose premises were damaged in a minor earthquake in 1936.

  • Anglo-Oriental Building

Anglo Oriental Building KL

This building was also built in 1937 – a busy year for Mr. Coltman. It was the headquarters for Anglo-Oriental, a tin mining company and its main doors were made of pewter. It incorporates a number of art deco features which must have been the height of fashion when it was new.

  • Lee Rubber Building

Lee Rubber Building KL

Also of 1930’s design, the Lee Rubber Building was commissioned by Lee Kong Chian, a Chinese businessman from Johor who made a fortune from rubber and pineapple plantations. During the war the building was used by the notorious Kempeitai military police. Both Coltman and his wife were interned by the Japanese during the War (he in Singapore and she in Sumatra).

  • Rubber Research Institute

RRI Kuala Lumpur

RRI on Jalan Ampang is a series of brick buildings with large concrete or plaster mullions and embellishments in art deco style. The uppermost decorations shown here which look like towels on a rail represent sheets of latex hanging out to dry, an every day sight at the time on any rubber plantation.  A foundation stone laid by the Sultan of Selangor bears the date 22nd April 1936.

  • Odeon Cinema

Odeon Cinema KL

The Odeon Cinema on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman was built in 1936 for the Cathay Organisation. Unfortunately its exterior is now almost entirely blanketed in advertising posters but the towers with flagpoles are just visible flanking the entrance.

  • Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Brunei
This is the Legoland version.
This is the Legoland version.

Mr. Coltman was active in Brunei too where he completed the detailed drawings for the famous Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque which was completed in 1958. I have visited this mosque but it was in pre-digital photography days so you’ll have to make do with this shot taken in Legoland Malaysia.

  • Mercantile Bank KL

Mercantile Bank in Kuala Lumpur in 1961

Coltman left Malaya in 1957 but his firm Booty Edwards continued to obtain work including the redevelopment of Mercantile Bank in 1961 (you can see the OCBC Building on the left). The building was remodelled a couple of times since following its rebranding as HSBC and most recently it has found a new life as a hotel, Pacific Express.

Former HSBC/Mercantile Bank in KL

The style of the lower floors is an attempt to blend in with the adjacent heritage shophouses on Medan Pasar Besar and to upgrade the overall appearance and ambience of this historic market square. It works as long as you don’t look up!

Kota Bharu – Mercantile Bank – The Kerapu Bank

Bank Kerapu, Kota Bharu

On my recent visit to Kota Bharu I was interested to visit the War Museum, housed in the former premises of a Mercantile Bank branch. This building was completed in July 1922. The branch was downstairs and the bank manager lived upstairs. The original room layout of the manager’s flat has been retained and it is easy to imagine that it must have been a spacious and elegant residence.

In the grounds of the Museum is another building which appears to date from the same period.

Kota Bharu

Perhaps this was accommodation for junior assistants working at the bank or quarters for domestic staff.

The sign over the Museum entrance says Bank Kerapu and the plaque outside says that Mercantile was known locally as Kerapu Bank in reference to the rough textured exterior of the building. Strange – my Malay dictionary (and Google Translate) says that the word kerapu means ‘grouper’ (the fish). Perhaps it means ‘rough’ in Kelantanese dialect.

I have a different theory for the origins of the word. In World War II the Japanese invasion first came ashore at Sabak beach  a few kilometers from Kota Bharu. My theory is that a Japanese officer came to Mercantile Bank to cash his travellers cheques and was told to queue up like everyone else. He became angry and complained bitterly about the service. “This is a kerapu bank” he shouted. Just joking – I am sure that Mercantile Bank’s service was never kerapu.

More seriously the safes were converted to prison cells during the war and torture was carried out on the premises by the notorious Kempeitai, Japanese military police. After the war the building was used again as a bank. Mercantile Bank was taken over by The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in 1959.

Bird Cage at the War Museum