A walk down Neil Road

30 10 2012

Tucked away in a rather quiet but no less interesting corner of a district of Singapore that has come to be called Chinatown is an area which is often overlooked. The area, in Chinatown’s south-western corner incorporates the Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area, part of the Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area and boasts several architectural gems, which have unfortunately been cast in the shadow of a towering 50 storey public housing development, The Pinnacle@Duxton at nearby Duxton Plain.

Several conservation gems can be found along Neil Road, including what would have been the houses of the very wealthy (judging from the enclosed front yards these units at No. 56 – 60) were provided with.

Units 56 – 60 Neil Road seen in 1983 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The area is certainly one that is worth exploring, not just for the notable clan associations and clubs – one is the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many luminaries including the illustrious Tan Kah Kee, set amongst the many rows of beautifully conserved shophouses. Running partly along the area’s southern boundary is Neil Road which can perhaps be said to lie at the heart of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) conservation efforts – the pilot shophouse conservation project undertaken by the URA stands at No. 9 Neil Road.

The Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area boasts many architectural conservation gems and is also one that has been cast in the shadow of a towering public housing development at nearby Duxton Plain.

The Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many of Singapore’s luminaries.

Neil Road starts off where South Bridge Road ends at its junction with Maxwell and Tanjong Pagar Roads, rising up towards the Bukit Pasoh area. It is at this point that a gorgeous and very recognisable piece of architecture, the Jinrikisha Station, greets one’s eye. Built in 1903 in the Edwardian style on a triangular plan with a fairfaced brickwork exterior, the building is one that certainly needs no introduction and is now owned by Hong Kong Jackie Chan. It is just up the road from the Jinrikisha Station that No. 9, which now serves as a home to a Chinese tea shop Tea Chapter, lies.

The Jinrikisha Station at the start of Neil Road – built as a registration centre for rickshaws is now owned by Jackie Chan.

The conservation of No. 9 Neil Road was undertaken as part of a pilot URA shophouse restoration project that took place from 1987 to 1988 that involved a total of 32 shophouses built at the end of the 19th century, with No. 9 selected as a demonstration unit. The restored unit at No. 9 was where HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had tea at during a visit in 1989. The successful conservation project involving the 32 houses was the first phase of a larger effort to conserve a total of 220 government owned shophouses in the Tanjong Pagar area and intended to demonstrate the technical and commercial viability of shophouse conservation. The effort was one that was welcomed by conservationists as it had come at a time when large parts of the city had already been cleared of the pre-war shophouses which once dominated the cityscape.

No. 9 Neil Road – the very first conservation shophouse.

The 220 shophouses are on a 4.1 hectare site that was acquired from 1981 to 1984 by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The units had contained a mix of businesses and residents including many traditional businesses – one was Chan Pui Kee, an antique dealer and antique furniture restorer which had operated at No. 7 since 1913 (and has since moved to a restored shophouse at Lorong 24A Geylang). The residents of the houses had lived mainly on the upper floors, some at the point of acquisition, having lived there for much of their lives. Many were trishaw riders, craftsmen, and even prostitutes who worked in the area, living in very crowded spaces, renting rooms or cubicles for as little as $4 a month. The acquired houses, many of which had once been in the hands of Arab property owners, were to be demolished to make way for public housing, but a shift in thinking of our urban planners on high density public housing in the city centre saved them from that fate.

Conserved three storey shophouses along Neil Road.

Walking up the incline of the road, there are further examples of the conservation efforts that eventually was to involve a greater part of Chinatown, including several voluntary conservation initiatives. One such initiative is the conservation of the former Eng Aun Tong factory building at 89 Neil Road. As many familiar with the area would be aware of, Eng Aun Tong was a name used by the Haw Par brothers and the factory was where the most famous of their products, Tiger Balm, was once made. Based on information on the URA conservation of built heritage site, the building was built in 1924 in the Neoclassical Style. The starting up of the factory coincided with the Aw family’s move to Singapore from Rangoon (Yangon) in the 1920s. The factory operated until 1971 when production operations were contracted out and production of the famous ointment was moved to the Jack Chia group’s factories in Jurong.

The conserved former Eng Aun Tong factory building – where Tiger Balm had once been made.

The Eng Aun Tong factory building as seen depicted in a 1920s advertisement for Tiger Balm (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Walking past the former Eng Aun Tong factory, one will notice the blue balustrades of a concrete bridge. The bridge is one that passes over what is technically the first rail corridor conservation project. The corridor – now a linear park named Duxton Plain Park was where an extension to the original rail line (pre-1932 Deviation) had been constructed in 1907 to connect the terminal at Tank Road to connect with the waterfront, extending to Pasir Panjang. Operations on the extension were short-lived and the line was dismantled in between 1912 to 1914. A stretch from Yan Kit Road to New Bridge Road was retained as a public park. The park is one that is associated with one of the clubs in the area, a martial arts association – the Chin Woo Athletic Association (精武體育會or 精武体育会), as is evident from a steel sign erected on one of the bridge’s balustrades which reads “精武體育會操場” – the park had long served as a training ground for the association which has had a presence in the area since its formation here in 1922. It has been reported that our first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had often watched the association practice lion and dragon dances at the park in his younger days (he had lived as a boy in his paternal grandfather’s residence at nearby 147 Neil Road).

The bridge over the first rail corridor conservation project – now Duxton Plain Park. A sign tells us that it had served as a training ground for the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Living at nearby 147 Neil Road, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had as a young boy often caught many of the associations lion and dragon dance practice sessions at the park.

From this point, Neil Road soon crosses Cantonment Road and takes one west out of the Chinatown district towards another quiet and delightful conservation area, the Blair Plain Conservation Area. Crossing Cantonment Road, I am reminded of the many horror stories I have heard in my younger days that was associated with balancing the clutch on the slope at the junction during driving tests. Those were days when tests were conducted out of the former Maxwell Road driving test centre when the Traffic Police had its headquarters at the building which is today the Red Dot Design Museum. These days, it is across Cantonment Road that we notice a huge police presence – that of a towering new law enforcement complex named the Police Cantonment Complex.

A look into the compound of a conserved row of three shophouses at 56 – 60 Neil Road.

It might be a little hard to notice a little Victorian building that stands beneath the towering complex along Neil Road – especially now with its covered up for restoration work. The very pretty building, despite being very compact, once housed a school, and was where the Fairfield Girls’ School (which later became Fairfield Methodist School and is now Fairfield Methodist School) had operated at from 1912 to 1983. The building, built with the donation of a Mr Fairfield (hence the name of the school) is now part of the Police complex, although intended originally as a childcare centre for staff at the Police complex, the building will now house a Police recruitment centre.

The former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School (photo on the URA website).

It is beyond the former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School on the opposite side of the road that we come to the cluster of terrace houses which contains the unit that Mr Lee had spent some of his boyhood years at. Just down from that unit at No. 147, is No. 157 which is probably the jewel in the crown of the conservation efforts along Neil Road. That painted blue in an attempt to restore it to its original colour isn’t only a house which has seen it exterior restored but also one which has had much its fittings and furniture retained and restored and is possibly the best example of a Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese house from the turn of the 20th Century that exists today. The house, thought to have been built in the 1890s, had once belonged to shipping magnate Wee Bin and his descendants, has its interior retained through the conservation efforts of the National University of Singapore (NUS) (which owns the house having purchased it for the historical value of it and its contents) and the URA. Among the wonderfully preserved fittings is a very ornate carved wooden screen which separates the main hall from the interior of the house. The Baba House as it is called now, has some of its original furniture and flooring is well worth a visit. Visits are strictly by appointment only and advance arrangements for heritage tours are required. More information can be found at the NUS website. Do note that photography is not permitted inside the Baba House.

Baba House at 157 Neil Road – now owned by NUS and managed by NUS Museum was beautifully restored from 2006 to 2008.

Units 157 Neil Road (Baba House) seen in 1982 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).


The walk along Neil Road was part of a guided walk “Neil Road/NUS Baba House Walking Tour“, one in a series of tours conducted by the URA in conjunction with the URA Architectural Heritage Awards 2012. While registration for two of the remaining tours are closed, there is an ongoing exhibition at the URA Centre Atrium until 10 November 2012 which showcases the five award winners. The exhibition is open Mondays to Fridays from 8.30am to 7pm and on Saturdays from 8.30am to 5pm. It is closed on Sundays and Public Holidays.






First Journeys, Last Goodbyes at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

5 09 2012

For anyone interested in visiting Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, you will be glad to know that it will be opened for a motoring heritage exhibition this weekend (8 / 9 September 2012). Beside the vintage car display that will be put up by the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register (MSVCR), there will also be a chance to take rides on vintage mini-buses and scooters as well as revisit one of the main reasons why many visited the station before its closure – food. As part of the event, there will be an exhibition along the wider theme of transportation heritage for which the National Heritage Board (NHB) which has organised this event has invited me to help put together an exhibition of photographs from the community on the railway and the station. For this, I have got a group of various people that have an interest in the railway and the station to reflect on the journeys made and the last goodbyes that were said in a small exhibition ‘First Journeys, Last Goodbyes’. The exhibition will be opened from 10 am to 5 pm on both days and there will be free shuttle buses at half hour intervals from Tanjong Pagar MRT Station through the day. For those interested in learning more about the station’s history and architecture, guided tours of the station will also be conducted on both days.

A last goodbye on 30 June 2011.


About First Journeys, Last Goodbyes

For close to five decades after Singapore’s independence, the Malaysian railway continued to operate through Singapore on a piece of Malaysia that cut a path into the heart of Singapore. It was perhaps one of the last physical reminders of the common history that the two countries shared.

The southern terminal at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station completed in 1932, was modelled after Helsinki’s Central Station to give it a grand appearance for its intended role. That role, the grand southern terminal of a pan-Asian railway and a gateway to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, was one it never got to play, serving instead as a focal point of any rail journey into or out of Singapore.

The station best remembered for the high vaulted ceiling with huge panels of batik styled mosaic murals of its main hall was one that saw many visitors over the years. That, the experience of the station, as well as the many personal journeys taken through the station would have left a deep impression.

First Journeys, Last Goodbyes brings a few travellers each with a personal story to share of their journeys, journeys on railway or through the station … journeys that will take a long time to be forgotten …

Contributors to the community photo exhibition are Zinkie Aw, Francis Siew, Loke Man Kai, Tan Geng Hui and myself.


Information received on 7 Sep 2012 on the weekend public tours of the station:

The tours will be conducted by PMB’s Volunteer Guides. No sign-ups are required for the tours. Public tours will be:
• Sat, 8 Sep: 2pm, 3pm and 4pm.
• Sun, 9 Sep: 2pm and 3pm






Tanjong Pagar: a promise that we now know would never be fulfilled

11 07 2012

Standing silently and somewhat forgotten is a building that, only a year ago, attracted many people’s attention in Singapore. This building, the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, a magnificent architectural achievement once described as having a “palatial appearance”, recently joined Singapore’s list of National Monuments. Completed in 1932, the station was built as a centrepiece to underline Singapore’s growing importance as an economic centre in the British Far East, serving as a gateway for the southernmost point in continental Asia to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Located opposite the docks at Tanjong Pagar, the station was one that had been well-considered. The then Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, in his address at the station’s opening on 2 May 1932, had made the observation that it was “a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic” and mentioned that it was “where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”. The promise was, however, not fulfilled – Sir Cecil could not have predicted that the railway’s importance as a means of transportation in the Malayan peninsula would diminish.

The station’s opening that day was marked by the 5.15 pm arrival, from Bukit Panjang Station, of its first train. This train carried several dignitaries, including the Governor, the Sultan of Perak and Mr J Strachan, the General Manager of the Federated Malay States Railway. Several months prior to the opening (on 2 January 1932), the station had already made its public debut – by playing host to a Manufacturers’ Exhibition – an indication perhaps of its eventual destiny.

The station’s façade with the four large triumphal figures.

My first encounters with the station took place at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. My parents often drove past, drawn by the hawker stalls which operated in the evenings in a car-park facing the station’s entrance. It was while sitting at the tables in the car-park that I would gaze across to the station’s façade and stare at the four large, triumphal figures that flanked the portico’s arches. The figures were the work of Angelo Vannetti of the Raoul Bigazzi Studios Florence and represented the pillars of the Malayan economy. These triumphal figures are evidence of the Art Deco style chosen by its architects, Swan and MacLaren. Thought to have been inspired by Helsinki’s Central Station, it is believed the station also shares some of Washington DC’s Union Station’s design features. In fact Tanjong Pagar Station’s architectural elements reveal both western and eastern influences; the green-tiled roof structures were inspired by the roofs of Chinese Temples.

The main hall of the station. Part of the vaulted ceiling and batik-style mosaic panels can be seen.

On the rare occasions when I found myself in the main hall, the high vaulted ceiling that rises some 22 metres above the ground caught my attention, as did the six sets of mosaic panels that resemble giant batik paintings. The mosaic panels, which contain a total of 9,000 tiles, looked very much like the batik prints hanging in my home. The panels depict scenes that represent the economies of the then Federated Malay States. At that time, the station had also housed a hotel on the upper floors, around the main hall. A huge sign in the north-east corner of the hall made sure this did not go unnoticed.

It was in the 1990s that I first took a train out of the station. Seemingly in defiance of its location, a huge blue “Welcome to Malaysia” sign stood above the station’s entrance. A Points of Agreement (POA) had been signed in 1990 between the Malaysian Government and their Singapore counterparts. This was to pave the way for the eventual moving of the station from Tanjong Pagar and would involve its handover along with the land the railway ran through (whose ownership was transferred to the railway administration through a 1918 ordinance – effectively making it part of Malaysia).

Two decades of protracted negotiations followed the 1990 POA before the differences in its interpretation resulted in a renegotiation of land swap arrangements between the two governments. The moving of the station from Tanjong Pagar and the handover of land was agreed on only in May 2010.

It was perhaps at the beginning of 2011 that interest in the station and in train journeys from Tanjong Pagar started to build. The realisation that the station was soon to close drew crowds not previously seen at the station. Many turned up for a final look, to make a last departure or to have a last meal at the station, joined by a frenzy of photographers and members of both the local and overseas media, who seemed intent on recording the station’s last days.

A few former food stall operators having a last breakfast on 30 June 2011.

The final day of operations at the station, 30 June 2011, came all too soon. It was an especially poignant day for the station’s railway staff and also for the food-stall operators – some were seen having a last breakfast in the almost empty room that only days before had been filled with food-stalls and tables filled with diners. Well before the first train was to depart, a crowd had already gathered in the main hall. Many had come to witness the final moments. Some had come to start a journey that would end with a final homecoming to the station on the very last train that evening.

The crowds grew as the day passed. As night fell, many more gathered to witness the historic departure of the last train out, to be driven by the Sultan of Johor. I had come on the very last in-bound train and was prepared for the reception at the station by the scenes I had seen along the way. Huge crowds had gathered at Bukit Timah Station and at each of the five level crossings, to bid goodbye. After the train finally pulled in following a long delay at Bukit Timah, I lingered a while before stepping out onto the platform. I turned back for a final glance at the platform, realising that would be the last of my many homecomings into Tanjong Pagar.

The crowd at Tanjong Pagar late on 30 June 2011 to witness the departure of the last train.

As I stepped through the barrier, a crowd of would-be passengers heading towards the same train that had pulled in (now the last train out) almost swept me along with them. I managed to squeeze my way out while a frenzy was developing in the public areas. Through the crowd I spotted the Sultan, dressed in a checked shirt and speaking to reporters with tears in his eyes. At the final hour a huge cheer could be heard as the train pulled out, driven by the Sultan. In a daze I stared after it as the train faded into the darkness. It was then that I heard the silence that was there despite the noise coming from the crowd. It was one that filled the air – a silence that after some 79 years would never again be broken by the once-familiar sounds, a silence that spoke of the promise that we now know would never be fulfilled.


This article was written to coincide with the first anniversary of the closure of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and has been published as “Tanjong Pagar Railway Station” in the July / August issue of Passage, a bi-monthly magazine produced by the Friends of the Museums (FOM).


Further information on Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and on the anniversary of the handover:

  • Photographs of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on the anniversary of its handover can be found at my post Tanjong Pagar One Year On.
  • A complete series of posts related to my encounters with Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, the railway and the journeys I have made through the station can be found at my “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar” page.
  • Article (in Chinese) that may be of interest published in the Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao on the 1st of July in which some my views connected with the Rail Corridor were sought can be found at this link.




Faces from a forgotten place

3 07 2012

This post features a selection of photographs intended to capture part of what had made the much loved Tanjong Pagar Railway Station what it was just prior to its closure, one to celebrate the many faces that provided the station with its heart and soul. The faces are ones that would be familiar, and are not just of the people who were part of the fabric the station, but also of the many that came and went and of the sights and sounds that gave the station its unique flavour, a flavour that, despite the conservation of the building as a National Monument, will fade as memories fade. The photographs are the same ones which were presented during a sharing session at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station open house held on the afternoon of 1st July 2012 – the first anniversary of the handover of the station and the railway land to the Singapore government. The open house was held as part of the Rail Corridor Open Day and also included guided walks around Bukit Timah Railway Station.

While the building, now gazetted as a National Monument still stands, it is the memory of what had made the station what it was – the familiar sights, the people that came and went, and most of all the people who were very much a part of the fabric of the station that will with time fade.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as it was is a place that always will be dear to me. I have many fond memories of the station from my previous encounters, encounters that go back to the earliest days of my life. Then, it was the food stalls that magically appeared in the evenings at a car park the lights of which dimly illuminate the station’s grand façade and its four triumphal figures. That was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was after the latter half of the 1970s that the station would become a feature in my Chinese New Year reunion dinners – my aunt who hosted the dinners moved to a flat in Spottiswoode Park just by the station and reunion dinners would not be the same without the accompaniment of the sounds of whistles and of the noisy diesel locomotives from the station. The 1990s brought me my many encounters with the station through which I made numerous trips up to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and back – journeys that would forever be etched in my memory. These encounters with the station, and the memorable journeys I made through it, I have attempted to capture through a series of blog posts which many of you might have already read. However if they are of interest, the posts can be found through the page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Once familiar sights

A car belonging to the Malayan Railway, KTM, parked in front of the building.

The main hall as it looked at eye level in its latter days – a Tourism Malaysia hut was placed right in the middle of the hall.

The ticket counter in quieter days – well before the madness of the last two months descended on the station.

Waiting to buy a ticket often required some patience.

Especially when the ticketing system is down – that in my experience often happened.

Another sign one might encounter ….

We were always reminded that we had to pay not the equivalent in the local currency for the price of a ticket but one unit of the local currency for every unit of the weaker Ringgit.

And when you did finally get your hands on the ticket, you could find a seat in the main hall to pass your time away …

… which provides many opportunities for people watching …

… or as I often do, have a cup of teh tarik at the platform – a popular spot for watching the coming and going of not just the trains and the locomotives.

Access to the departure platform was through a gate that would only be opened about half an hour prior to the scheduled departure of the trains to facilitate immigration clearance. On the commuter services on which seating is not assigned, passengers would often crowd at the gate prior to departure, ready to make a dash first for the Immigration counters. After clearing Immigration and Customs, the same thing would happen at a barrier which when opened will see a mad rush of passengers to the train carriages.

Tickets would be checked and punched at the departure gate.

From which one would proceed to the immigration counters.

With the shift of Singapore’s CIQ to Woodlands in mid 1998 and the Malaysian authorities maintaining their Immigration and Customs counters at the station, passengers would effectively enter Malaysia before leaving Singapore.

Passengers boarding the last luxury E&O train to depart from Tanjong Pagar posing next to Malaysian Immigration booths.

The last E&O train to depart at the platform.

Returning home, one of the first things that would greet you (post mid 1998) as you walked to the end of the platform was the barrier before you got into the public area. Prior to the move of the SIngapore CIQ, you would first have to pass through Singapore Immigration, Customs and a narrow passage through a fenced area where K9 unit dogs would sniff passengers for smuggled narcotics.

The next thing one would encounter would be the canteen / coffee shop at which one could stop to have a meal or a drink prior to leaving. I often picked up my breakfast from the canteen after coming in on the overnight train from KL.

The canteen would also be a great place to wait for returning members of the family and friends.

It was also a wonderful place to catch up with friends over a cup of tea ….

.. or to have dinner with the family.

It would be common to see passengers with large pieces of luggage leaving the station.

The station had a hotel which closed in the 1980s. Towards the end of its life, it hosted a hostel with dormitory type double bunk bed accommodation which offered a cheap place to spend the night or even take a short rest – this closed in late 2010.

Trying to get a taxi home was always a challenge as many taxi drivers did not like to wait at the station as trains arrival times were unpredictable.

Once familiar faces

One of the first faces one would encounter driving to the station’s car park.

And if one needed to use the rest room.

One that you might have seen at the Habib Railway Book Store and Money Changer, Mr Syed Ahmad.

Mr Syed’s nephew – ‘Nazir’ would probably have been seen more frequently.

The hardworking last Station Master at Tanjong Pagar – En. Ayub.

A very helpful ticketing clerk, En. Azmi, who was posted to the station on 1st July 1990. He completed a full 21 years at the station when it ceased operations on 30th June 2011.

A few more of the familiar faces (and less familiar ones) …

Mr Mahmoodul Hasan who ran the two canteens in the station before its closure.

Some of those who assisted him at the drinks counter and the popular Ramly Burger stand.

One of the ladies from the food stall at the corner of M Hasan 2.

One of the stall assistants at the platform.

The chapati man at M Hasan 2.

One who is always ready with a smile – the Satay stall’s assistant at M Hasan 2.

And last of all one that should not be forgotten – one of the many cats the station was home to.





Tanjong Pagar one year on

2 07 2012

I stepped into the eerie silence of a world that a little over a year ago, had been one that had seen the frenzy that accompanied the last moments of the old Malayan Railway’s operations through Singapore. The now silent world, Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, is now but an empty shell, abandoned by the trains that regularly punctured the air with the deafening roar of their diesel locomotives as well as by the people who made the station what it was – the hardworking staff of the railway, those who saw to providing it with essential services, and those who came and went with the comings and goings of the trains.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station 1 year on.

The station was able to momentarily break out of its solitude due to a kind offer by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to the Nature Society Singapore (NSS) and the Friends of the Rail Corridor to open up both Tanjong Pagar Railway Station to the public on the first anniversary of the handover of the station and the Rail Corridor to the Government of Singapore. As a result of this, a Rail Corridor Open Day was very quickly put together. This included a guided walk in the morning held at Bukit Timah Station which was followed by an open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in the afternoon. The handful of people that did turn up at Tanjong Pagar, probably numbering about a hundred during the course of the afternoon comprising rail enthusiasts, familiar faces that I met during last year’s frenzy, the curious and some who hail from distant shores, got an opportunity to participate in a guided tour conducted by Dr Lai Chee Kien and learn more about the station and its and the railway’s history.

The main hall during the guided tour – now clear of the Tourism Malaysia hut that had got in the way of achieving a nice perspective in photographs that were taken before the handover.

The open house also allowed some to share some of what they have put together on the station. This included a poignant and very interesting documentary made in 2008, Project 1932, by Zinkie Aw that touches on some of the people who were part of the station’s history. I also had to opportunity to share a series of photographs that I had captured to help me reconnect with the station as it once had been. The series which I named ‘Faces from a forgotten place’ includes once common scenes and once familiar faces, ones that we see now only in the memories we have of a little over a year ago. It is these very memories that I tried to find as I took the opportunity that was presented to explore what I could of the silence. In its emptiness and abandonment, it was not the memories that I was able to find, but ironically, the beauty of the station that I would otherwise not have known – spaces previously occupied and closed to us that even in the state of the two decades of neglect during which time its status had been in limbo is still obvious.

The station in its solitude was able to reveal some of its otherwise hidden beauty.

This beauty that we can still see takes us back to a time when the world had been a different place, to a time when it was thought the station would take its place as the grand southern terminal of the Malayan Railway and the gateway to the Pacific and Indian oceans – a promise that a little over 79 years after it was opened has proven to be one that was never to be fulfilled. What will become of the former station we do not know, its possible second life will be explored in a Design Competition that aims to develop concepts for the future use of the station which has been gazetted as a National Monument, Bukit Timah Railway Station (which has conservation status), and the 26 kilometres of the former Rail Corridor. What I do hope to see would be a use that will not just preserve the memory of the role it was meant to assume and the memories we have of the railway, but also one that with minimum intervention will see it retain not just the beauty that we have seen but also the beauty that has until now been one that has been hidden.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in its solitude

The emptiness that now fills the station offers another perspective of its beauty.

Once hidden spaces that in the station’s abandonment can now be seen, reveal a side of the station that has until now has not been seen by many.

A view out of the window at the white iron fence that lines the station’s boundary with Keppel Road.

The writing on the wall … a memory in an otherwise hidden space of what the station once was …

Recent writings on the wall … collection of wishes for the station written by visitors to the open house.

View through what was a freight forwarder’s office.

A storage area that was used by the canteen operator.

Windows to a forgotten world.

The silence of a once busy space.

More silence ….

Signs of a forgotten time.

The silence of departure (photo taken with Sony Xperia S).

Last act of the day – security personnel trying to close a platform gate that just refused to be closed …


Do visit my series of posts on my previous encounters with the station, the railway and the journeys I have made through the station which can be found at the “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar” page on this site.


An article of that may be of interest in the Chinese newspaper Zaobao published on the 1st of July in which some my views on the preservation of memories connected with the Rail Corridor were sought: http://www.zaobao.com.sg/sp/sp120701_020_2.shtml … I’ll try to get that translated and posted here for the benefit of those that don’t read Chinese.






Fading memories

5 06 2012

A year ago, Singapore was seeing the last days of the old Malayan Railway. The railway had served Singapore over a century, cutting a path through the island first with a line partly running on what is Dunearn Road today over to Tank Road. With the deviation of 1932, the line was set on its last path, turning at Bukit Timah to the docks at Tanjong Pagar. The line fell silent on the 1st of July and with that, all that was left were the physical reminders of the old railway and the collective memories we have of it.

The silence of the morning after a little over 79 years of operations at Bukit Timah Railway Station.

One year on, many of the physical reminders are no longer with us – most of the tracks and sleepers have since been removed and returned to Malaysia. The two station buildings have received conservation status – Tanjong Pagar Railway Station has been gazetted as National Monument and Bukit Timah Railway Station a conserved building. We do know that three other recognisable structures – the two truss bridges that define the Bukit Timah area and a girder bridge that many see as a gateway to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, will remain. There are several other smaller structures that we do see including the surviving signal huts at the various level crossings (the bright yellow one at Kranji Road fell victim to urgent road widening works soon after the 1st of July). It is unfortunate that several structures that still stand, were ones that have not been very well maintained when they were in use. As a result, most of the wooden structures are termite infested and are in rather poor shape. It does look as if, based on the signs that have been placed around the structures, that they may go the way of (if they haven’t already) the other physical reminders that since been removed.

The signal hut at the former Kranji Level Crossing was one of the first to go.

One which sees a “building unsafe” sign is the former Mandai (Stagmont Ring Road) Crossing’s signal hut. This would really be a shame – the hut bears an impromptu memorial on its door neatly scribbled in permanent market pen. Written on the door are the names of the last gatemen, presumably by one of them: Mr P Mohan A/L Ponniah, Mr Hamid B. Hashim and Rodwwan B. Mohd. Salleh. Below the names is a record of the passing of the last train at 2330 hours on the 30th of June noting that the train was driven by the Sultan of Johor as well as the years of the crossing’s operation (1932 – 2011).

The former signal hut of the Mandai Gate Crossing that is structurally unsound.

The memorial to the last gatemen and the last train.

With the removal of this signal hut, little will be left to physically remind me of this level crossing – just those few photographs, and the records and the memories that I have. And of all that I will miss of the old railway, it is the sight of the level crossings that I will most miss – seeing a train cross the road does serve as the earliest memory I have of the railway. As memories fade with the passing of time, it is this memory of the railway that I hope that I will hang on the longest to.

With the tracks and sleepers now removed, there is very little physically left to remind us of the railway.

The outhouse at the Mandai Crossing will also have to go.





The mosque at the 778.25 km marker

16 05 2012

It was a year ago that interest in the former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line that ran through Singapore started to peak as the realisation hit many in Singapore that the last days of the railway line were upon us. Many embarked on their own journeys through Tanjong Pagar Station to have the experience of the railway and a journey through the grand old station. There were many who also explored the land on which the railway ran on foot – catching glimpses and taking snapshots to remember a world that was about to change forever. Whether it is from the vantage of the rail carriage or from the ground, there is no doubt many would have realised that a world far apart from the one we lived in existed along the corridor along which the railway ran through, one that in many ways took one, without leaving Singapore’s borders, far away from Singapore.

Masjid Hang Jebat as seen from a passing train. Many otherwise hidden parts of Singapore, some which takes us far away from the Singapore we now know, could be seen from the trains that used to run through Singapore.

One of the places along the corridor that would certainly have been noticed is a cluster of zinc roofed buildings close to where the 778.25 km distance marker was, a place if one was on the northbound train one would pass about 7 minutes out of the station just around the bend after passing under the Gillman Flyover and Alexandra Hospital. The cluster of buildings belongs to the Masjid Hang Jebat, a mosque that lies not on railway land but on a part of Singapore, Wessex Estate, that once was home to British army personnel. It is to Wessex Estate that the mosque owes its establishment; but that it exists to this day is probably a result of the railway that ran beside it – protecting the area from being developed all these years. The name of the surau and later the mosque, comes from Jalan Hang Jebat in Wessex Estate, at the end of which the mosque stands.

The mosque as seen in July 2011, just after the cessation of KTM railway services to Tanjong Pagar.

The 778.25 km marker that once stood close to the mosque.

The setting for the mosque certainly takes one far from the Singapore we have come to know. Set amid the wonderful greenery that the area is blessed with, the coconut palms that tower over the mosque and the cluster of banana trees reminds us of an old Singapore we have quickly sought to forget. On one of my recent visits to the area, a man emerges from the cluster of buildings now decorated with green floral motifs and greets me. He is Jimmy – the man who apparently is behind what now decorates the buildings. Jimmy tells me that the motifs are fairly recent addition, painted on to coincide with the Prophet’s birthday. “The decoration changes every year,” Jimmy says, going on to explain that he was the artist behind the decorations.

The rural setting in which the Masjid Hang Jebat is in.

All evidence of the railway has since been removed.

As I step through what looks like a little canteen that is reminiscent of the ones we find in the villages across the Causeway, Jimmy relates how he has been connected to the mosque since he was a young boy. He then lived in a block of flats in Queens Crescent which has since been demolished and has come to the mosque ever since. Saturdays he says are especially busy days at the mosque and like he did in his younger days, many come for religious instruction (including intending converts to the religion) and to play Sepak Takraw in the yard.

The recently decorated hall.

The artist, Jimmy, posing for a photograph.

It was in fact in serving the residents of the area, Queens Crescent being one, as well as nearby residential clusters in the early days of Queenstown that included Queens Close, Stirling Road and Tanglin Halt, that was instrumental in seeing what was started as surau, a prayer room, expand into the mosque it is today. The surau was built in the early 1960s exclusively for use by Muslim serving in the British forces based in Wessex Estate, in what was an area that was fenced-up (although many in the area managed to find a way in). With the British withdrawal in 1971, the surau and the land on which it sits on were opened up and donations were collected to expand the prayer room into a mosque to accommodate the growing population in the area.

Warong Hang Jebat … a stall set in the mosque’s canteen that is reminiscent of village stalls across the Causeway.

Today, the mosque sits in relative silence, no longer serenaded by the sounds of the railway, evidence of has been removed. It is a refreshing escape from the noise and haste of the new world that Singapore is, but for how long, we don’t know. Behind the mosque, a clump of banana trees reminds me of a world we have long since abandoned. I observe a few kampung chickens coming down from a wooden coop running freely around the grassy area by the banana trees. The chickens, I am told, had until recently been wild – having emerged from the surrounding vegetation after the railway stopped running. That perhaps is a sign that the wild world that was once part of the railway land will inevitably be tamed … My hope is that tamed it is not and the wonderful parts of that world which still are there such as this mosque, will still be there to remind us of that gentler world from which the cold grey one we now live in once came from.

A clump of banana trees reminds me of a gentler world we have long abandoned.

Behind the mosque … a chicken coop holds village chickens that until recently, had run wild.

A view of the mosque from a path that leads to Wessex Estate.

Kampung Chickens.








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