There is, what was once an picturesque and idyllic part of Singapore, that much as we wanted to, we would not be able to venture to anymore. Marked by a landscape that would seem out of place in the Singapore of today with its terrain that undulates towards cliffs that overlook the sea, the area was decorated with gorgeous seaside villas and attap roofed wooden huts of coastal villages that provided a laid back feel to the surroundings. That was an area with a name that would not be out of place in a tropical paradise, Tanah Merah. The Tanah Merah of old, was very unlike the Tanah Merah that is associated with the MRT station with the name that we are more likely to be familiar with these days, a world apart from the Singapore we see today, and remains only in the memories and in the hearts of those who remember how it once had been.
I had first become acquainted with the area as a child of three. My parents were guests of their friends who were holidaying at a huge government bungalow by the sea. It was one of a cluster of three bungalows of a similar sort that sat on a hillock of sorts that had overlooked the sea. It would have been one that would have been put there by the British, who never failed to find that optimum locations to build houses and holiday bungalows for their ever faithful administrators. The large bungalows stood raised on columns that served as stilts, more perhaps to provide ventilation through the slits in the wooden floors which kept the houses cool in the oppressive tropical heat, and perhaps to keep vermin and snakes out, than to keep them dry in event of a flood. The bungalows would have been turned over to the Singapore government during the transition of the island from the colony it had been, to a state in the Federation and then independence, and turned into holiday bungalows for civil service officers. A shared wide expansive grassy grounds surrounded the bungalows, which at the south sea facing end, had a flight of stairs that led to a landing where benches faced the little beach and sea further below and accessible via another flight of stairs. Access from the ground level to the raised floor of the bungalows were through one of two sets of stairs either of which brought one up to a landing. This led to the well ventilated lounge and dining area as well as to the large airy bedrooms that were all spread across a single level. The kitchen and what would have been rooms which served as servants quarters were found at the ground level at the back of the bungalows.
Tanah Merah was where life was pretty, whether it was for the well off, living in their holiday villas by the sea, or for the village folk going about their day-to-day lives in the clam and peaceful surroundings of a coastal village. One of those fortunate to own one of the beautiful villas was none other than the illustrious David Marshall himself. A prominent and successful lawyer and Singapore’s first Chief Minister, Marshall had purchased what had been a dream villa from a retiring accountant. It was a wonderful sight set high over the sea that greeted you as you took the road southwestwards up the coast which was Wing Loong Road, as it rose up a white cliff-like feature, the face of which dropped down to the sea. This was where the coastline had continued southwest from the long sandy beach that stretched all the way along Nicoll Drive to Telok Paku in the opposite direction. Where the two roads (Wing Loong Road and Nicoll Drive) met, they formed a T-junction with Tanah Merah Besar Road, which connected the long and winding Tampines Road near Changi Prison to what had been a beautiful wind swept coastline. Wing Loong Road had run close to coastline from the junction and took a route which went past the village of Kampong Ayer Gemuruh and on towards the area known as Mata Ikan. Further southwest along the coast were other forgotten places such as Padang Terbakar, just before the coastline met what we still know as Bedok Corner. The three bungalows, two of which I remembered as the Plymouth and the Newquay, names synonymous with the seaside towns of old England, had stood close to the village of Ayer Gemuruh, and were accessible from Wing Loong Road via a paved road which first went downhill before turning up at a bend towards the bungalows, providing a wonderful setting for a restful holiday.
The area as it appeared to me, had seemed to be a wonderfully magical part of Singapore, one that had provided me with endless hours of seaside adventure and also journeys of discoveries that I took sitting in the back seat of my father’s trusty Austin 1100. Staying in the area quite often – my parents often took weekly breaks during the school holidays at nearby the government bungalows at Mata Ikan (they had not been as fortunate as their friends who had access to the wonderfully big bungalow I had described earlier), Wing Loong Road provided (via Nicoll Drive) the means to get to a favourite haunt of theirs, Changi Village, as well as the more pristine beaches and deeper waters closer to Telok Paku. The drive had never failed to keep me amused, and was one that I always enjoyed. One one of the drives, we came across a Kuda Kepang performance at a clearing in Kampong Ayer Gemuruh, the first occasion that I had ever seen one. On another occasion, I was fascinated to see a group of boys walking around with their sarongs held up by a frame. I was to discover that they would have just been circumcised, and the frames, presumably made of rattan, would have prevented the painful contact of the cloth of the sarongs with what must have been a very tender spot! The drive along Nicoll Drive was alway pleasant too … what I could remember was that some parts of the drive along the sandy coastline would take us past Casuarina tree lined beaches. There was also a set of buildings that belonged to a children’s home. Most of it is rather vague, and Peter Chan, who guest blogs on Lam Chun See’s Good Morning Yesterday, has been kind enough to provide his excellent recollection of the area, as well as a helpful set of pictorial information including some aerial views of the area, which I am most grateful for. Peter description follows in the next paragraph:
“When you travel down Tanah Merah Besar Road, (after the junction with Tampines Road) you go down the “valley” and up the top then down the “valley” until you reach Nicoll drive junction. There was a sand pit on the left of Tanah Merah Besar Road (just before the junction) – you see like what you find in Malaya’s tin mining open cast mining this wooden “slide”. Once you turn into Nicoll Drive on your right was Casuarina Motel (later called Aloha Rhu Village opened in 1971) – got Hawain waitress dressed in grass skirt – then next was this Singapore Handicapped Home or Cheshire Chidlren’s home. In front of those homes was a WW2 pill-box. Then you drive to 14 ms Nicoll Drive on your right you see one wooden community building – PA operated I think called Tanah Merah Holiday Camp. The there is a sharp bend to the right bcos there was the RAF Eastern Dispersal Area, then road straight again to Teluk Paku Road junction. After this junction you find government division 1 holiday bungalows (black and white type, modern bungalows also – now I think SIA Engineering hangers). Teluk Mata Ikan was accessible from Wing Loong Road (metaled road), also can from David Marshall house but must pass 2SIB HQ called Tanah Merah Camp which was built in 1966 and from the south through Somapah Road. There was a kampung and mosque at Ayer Gemuroh facing a cliff. Here are some photos you might need. I have written up in my memories book. The PA venue could be called either Tanah Merah Holiday Camp or Changi Holiday Camp. The modern bungalows during RAF era called B & H Bungalows (Brighton & Hoove still operate similar place in south England today)”.
I guess it would be hard to fully appreciate how it was like in that Tanah Merah, especially in the Singapore we are used to these day. Sadly for us, and probably more so for the residents of the area, the experience of what it might have been like has forever been lost. Tanah Merah and the beautiful coastline in the area was completely swallowed up by the massive land reclamation project of the early 1970s which altered much of Singapore’s southern shores, and in this instance provided the land on which Changi Airport was built on (more information on the reclamation project specific to this area can be found in a September 1970 news report in the Straits Times). This ended not just a brief magical adventure for me, but altered the lives of many who had lived in the area. The area is still there these days, bearing not resemblance whatsoever to what it had been. Part of the area under what is now Changi Airport and buried under Taxiway WA which runs along Runway 02L of Changi Airport (see a Google Earth map below in which I have attempted to identify the approximate location of the places in the area – this is not intended to be accurate but more to provide a general idea of where these magical places were), and all that is left today, are some photographs, some fond memories, and a deep longing for some, to return to the magic and wonderment that the once idyllic area had once provided ….