Nanyang University (南洋大学), affectionately known as Nantah (南大), was the first Chinese-language university in Southeast Asia and the second university in Singapore. Not only do the Former Nanyang University Library and Administration Building, Memorial, and Arch serve as remembrances of the original Nantah, they also bear witness to the relentless efforts and contributions of the local Chinese community towards making tertiary education accessible to Chinese-speaking youth.
Establishing a Chinese University
The proposal to establish a university for the Chinese community was mooted in 1953 by Tan Lark Sye (陈六使), a prominent Hokkien rubber magnate and philanthropist. He was Chairman of Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (today’s Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and President of Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. At that time, access to tertiary education was mostly granted to the English-educated. It was therefore the goal of the Chinese community leaders to found a post-secondary institution where Chinese youth could receive proper academic instruction, as well as to preserve and promulgate Chinese culture and values. The university was also intended to be a training ground for high school teachers in Malaya.
Chinese from all walks of life – including trishaw riders, cabaret girls and washerwomen – donated generously to the building fund, while Hokkien Huay Kuan provided an enormous parcel of land in Jurong. Construction of the buildings in the new campus, including the Former Library and Administration Building and Arch, began in 1954.
Before the facilities were ready, preparatory classes were conducted at The Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School (Main). On 15 March 1956, Nanyang University’s flag was raised in a simple ceremony at the new campus to mark the start of classes. The ceremony for the official opening of Nanyang University was held on 30 March 1958. A huge crowd of approximately 50,000 well-wishers gathered at the university for the auspicious occasion.
Architecture of Former Library and Administrative Building
Local architect Ng Keng Siang was appointed for the first phase of the new university’s construction; he was also responsible for the design of the Lim Bo Seng Memorial at the Esplanade Park. The Former Nanyang University Library and Administration Building, Memorial, and Arch were all designed in the Chinese National style. This architectural style blends both traditional Chinese and modern elements, and is characterised by a distinctively Chinese roof atop a reinforced concrete structure.
The wa dang (瓦当, circular eaves tiles) and di shui (滴水, triangular drip tiles) are imprinted with the characters nan (南) and da (大), the abbreviation of the university’s name. Flanking the central section of the building are the side wings with their beautiful exposed brick-faced façades. The building initially served as the university library. In 1966, it became the Administration Block. Today, it houses the Chinese Heritage Centre, which documents the lives and identity of the Chinese diaspora, and the history of Nanyang University.
Located a distance away from the Former Library and Administration Building in the residential area of Jurong West is the Arch, the former entrance gateway to the campus. The name of the university is boldly printed on the central beam, as is the year Nanyang University was opened. As the Arch now stands forlornly across the Pan-Island Expressway on what used to be campus grounds, it was decided that a replica be built in Yunnan Garden in front of the Former Library and Administration Building. It was unveiled on 17 May 1995 by Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo.
The Memorial in Yunnan Garden was also designed in the Chinese National style. It commemorates the completion of the first phase of the university’s construction. Capped by a prominent double-tier Chinese roof, the tower sits on an octagonal base with steps leading up to it in the four cardinal directions. It was unveiled by Governor of Singapore Sir William Goode in 1958.
Former Nanyang University Library and Administration Building, Memorial and Arch Today
Nanyang University merged with the University of Singapore in 1980 to form the National University of Singapore. The former Nanyang University campus was left vacant for two years before Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI) was established in 1982 and occupied the compound. A decade later, the institution grew to become a fully-fledged university and was renamed Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
The Former Nanyang University Library and Administration Building, Memorial and the original Arch were gazetted collectively as a National Monument.