Magical Landscapes: Spain, north of the plain

11 06 2014

A view from the backseat of a car of the landscape in the plains of the far north of Castile and León. The photograph was taken on a road trip around the north of Spain in late October 2011. The region is where some of the well-trodden pilgrim pathways of El Camino de Santiago  – the UNESCO World Heritage listed ancient pilgrimage routes of the Way of St. James, passes through, taking pilgrims on journey that is blessed with some truly magical landscapes as well as places en route that are a joy to discover.

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The pilgrimage, which dates back to 9th century A.D. sees pilgrims walking hundreds of kilometres (some routes do involve distances of as much as a thousand kilometres) along several routes leading to the sacred destination of Santiago de Compostela in the far northwest of Spain, the shortest of which is just over a hundred kilometres to venerate St. James (Santiago in Spanish) the Great – one of the twelve apostles. It is in a crypt in the city’s cathedral, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, that what is believed to be the relics of the saint, is housed.





A search for a lost countryside

27 02 2014

Together with several jalan-jalan kaki, I set off on a Sunday morning from Khatib MRT Station in search of a lost countryside. The area in which we sought to find that lost world, is one, that in more recent times has been known to us as Nee Soon and Ulu Sembawang. It was a part of Singapore that I first became acquainted with it in my childhood back in the early 1970s, when an area of rural settlements and village schools that were interspersed with poultry, pig and vegetable farms that awaited discovery along its many minor roads. It was also an area where the British military did  leave much in terms of evidence of their former presence.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

Fed by the waters of several rivers that spilled out into the Straits of Johor or Selat Tebrau, which included Sungei Seletar and its tributaries, Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and its tributaries and Sungei Sembawang, the area was to first attract gambier and pepper plantations in the mid 1800 with which came the first settlements. As with other plantation rich riverine areas of Singapore, the area attracted many Teochew immigrants, becoming one of several Teochew heartlands found across rural Singapore. Pineapple and rubber were to replace gambier and pepper in the 1900s – when the association with the likes of Bukit Sembawang and Lim Nee Soon, names which are now synonymous with the area, was to start.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Much has changed since the days of Chan Ah Lak’s gambier and pepper plantations – for which the area was originally known as Chan Chu Kang, the days of Lim Nee Soon’s pineapple and rubber cultivation and processing exploits, and even from the days when I made my first visits to the area. There are however, parts of it that in which some semblance of the countryside that did once exist can be found, parts where one can quite easily find that much needed escape from the concrete and overly manicured world that now dominates the island.

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)".

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)”.

One of two places where those reminders can be found is the area around Bah Soon Pah Road. The road, strange as it may seem, is in fact named after Lim Nee Soon – Bah Soon having been a nickname stemming from him being a Straits Born Chinese or “Baba”. These days, the truncated Bah Soon Pah Road, is still an area that is very much associated with agriculture, being an area that is at the heart of the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority’s (AVA) efforts to promote agrotechnology in Singapore. Playing host to the Nee Soon Agrotechnology Park, there are several farms to be found along the road, including one in which hydroponic vegetables for the local market are cultivated.

A link with the area's heritage.

Over the fence – a link with the area’s heritage.

An interesting sight along Bah Soon Pah Road is the building that now houses the AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre. The building – a huge bungalow built on stilts, in a style that resembles the “black and white” houses that the British built to house their administrators and senior military men and their families, probably built in the early 1900s with the arrival of the pineapple and rubber plantations, is in fact a physical link to Lim Nee Soon’s association with the area. Sitting atop a small hill – you do get a magnificent view of it from a distance from Yishun Avenue 1, the grand bungalow was I have been advised, a former residence of the assistant manager of Lim Nee Soon’s plantation, thus providing a link to a past that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The AVA's Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager's residence in Lim Nee Soon's estate.

The AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager’s residence in Lim Nee Soon’s estate.

From the west end of Bah Soon Pah Road, we turned north at Sembawang Road – once named Seletar Road. While Seletar today is the area where the former Seletar Airbase, now Seletar Aerospace Park is, Seletar did once refer to a large swathe of land in the north in, particularly so in the days before the airbase was built. The name Seletar is associated the Orang Seletar who inhabited the Straits of Johor, Selat Tebrau, a group of the sea dwellers around the coast and river mouths of northern Singapore and southern Johor from the days before Raffles staked the East India Company’s claim to Singapore. Seletar is a word that is thought to have been derived from the Malay word for strait or selat. Seletar Road, which would have brought travellers on the road to the Naval Base, and to Seletar Pier right at its end, was renamed Sembawang Road in 1939 so as to avoid confusion to road users headed to Seletar Airbase (then RAF Seletar) which lay well to its east. 

The road to the former residence.

The road to the former residence.

The drive down Sembawang Road, up to perhaps the early 1980s, was one that did take you through some wonderful countryside we no longer see anymore. One of my first and memorable trips down the road was in a bus filled with my schoolmates – which turned out to be annual affair whilst I was in primary school. The destination was Sembawang School off Jalan Mata Ayer. where we would be bused to, to support the school’s football team when they played in the finals of the North Zone Primary Schools competition.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon's rubber factory and the surrounding area.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon’s rubber factory further south, and the surrounding area.

The school, the site of which is now occupied by a condominium Euphony Gardens, would be remembered for its single storey buildings – commonly seen in Singapore’s rural areas, as it would be for its football field. The field did somehow seem to have been laid on an incline, a suspicion that was to be confirmed by the difficulty the referee had in placing the ball and preventing it from rolling, when for a penalty kick was awarded during one of the matches.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

The walk from Bah Soon Pah Road to Jalan Mata Ayer, did take us past two military camps. One, Khatib Camp as we know it today, is a more recent addition to the landscape. It would probably be of interest to some, that the original Khatib Camp was one used by the Malaysian military, housing the Tentera Laut Di-Raja Malaysia (TLMD) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) training school KD Pelandok from 1971 to 1980 and was known as Kem Khatib. The Malaysian association with it started in 1964 when it was first set up to house a Malaysian infantry battalion. This came at a time when Singapore was a part of Malaysia.

RMN officers in training at KD Pelandok in Singapore in the 1970s (photograph online at http://farm1.staticflickr.com/167/439314471_c932143651_o.jpg).

Apparently KD Pelandok was where the RMN, who in fact maintained their main base at Woodlands in Singapore until 1979, first carried out their own training of naval officers. Prior to this, naval officers had been sent to the UK to be trained. The camp was returned to Singapore on 2 February 1982, after the training school was shifted to the RMN’s main naval base in Lumut. A new Khatib Camp, now the home of the SAF’s Artillery, was built on the site and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) moved into it in 1983.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

One of the things I remember about the new Khatib Camp in its early days was this helmet shaped roof of its sentry post. Khatib Camp in its early days also housed the SAF Boys School, which later became the SAF Education Centre (SAFEC). The school provided a scheme in which ‘N’-level certificate holders could continue their education fully paid to allow them to complete their ‘O’-levels, after which students would be have to serve a six-year bond out with the SAF. In more recent time, Khatib Camp has been made into one of the centres where NSmen (reservists) would take their annual fitness tests, the IPPT. It is also where the dreaded Remedial Training (RT) programmes are conducted for those who fail to pass the IPPT.

A southward view - there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

A southward view – there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

Across from Khatib Camp, is Dieppe Barracks. Built originally to house British military units, it is now used by the SAF’s HQ Guards, and is one the last former British army camps to retain the word “barracks” in its name – a reminder of its association with the British forces, and also the New Zealand forces. It housed the 1st Battalion of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment from 1971 to 1989 leaving a distinctly New Zealand flavour on the area as well as in the areas of Sembawang up north. This was as part of the protection force first under the ANZUK arrangements that followed the British pullout in 1971. With the Australian forces pulling out in the mid 1970s, the New Zealanders stayed  on as the New Zealand Force South East Asia (NZ Force SEA). One of the things that was hard not to miss on the grounds of the barracks was how different the obstacle course in the open field in the north of the barrack grounds looked from those we did see in the SAF camps then.

Dieppe Barracks when it housed British units in the 1960s (online at http://www.nmbva.co.uk/keith%2012.jpg).

The entrance to Dieppe Barracks seen in the 1980s when it was used by 1 RNZIR with the fence that I so remember (online at http://anzmilitarybratsofsingapore.com/group/gallery/1_20_01_09_5_21_11.jpg).

Just north of Dieppe is where Jalan Mata Ayer can be found (where the school with the inclined football field was). The name “Mata Ayer” is apparently a reference to the source of the now quite well-known Sembawang Hot Springs. The once rural road led to a village called Kampong Mata Ayer, also known as Kampong Ayer Panas, close to the area where the hot spring, now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp, is.

Dieppe Barracks in 1975 (image online at http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/new-zealand-defence-force-headquarters-singapore, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 31-Jan-2014).

Continuing north along the road, there are several clusters of shophouses across the road from where Yishun New Town has come up. Several shops here do in fact have their origins in the villages of the area. One well known business is a traditional Teochew bakery, Gin Thye Cake Maker. Specialising in Teochew pastries, the bakery goes back to 1964 when Mdm. Ang Siew Geck started it in her village home at Bah Soon Pah Road. Described by The Straits Times as the Last of the Teochew bakeries, its biscuits are a popular choice amongst its customers. You would also be able to spot traditional wedding baskets lined up at the top of one of the shelves. The baskets are used by the bakery to deliver traditional sweets – as might have once been the case, for weddings. 

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Not far up from the shophouses, we come to the area where a relatively new Chong Pang Camp is. The camp sits on what once was a very picturesque part of Singapore, Ulu Sembawang. What was visible of the area from Sembawang Road were the fishing ponds and the lush greenery that lay beyond them. The greenery did obscure an area that did lie beyond it, that was particularly rich in bird life and was up to the 1990s, a popular area for birding activities.

Henry Cordeiro UluSembawang

It was an area that we did once get a wonderful view of from Jalan Ulu Sembawang, a road that rose up from close to the back of the then Seletaris bottling plant at its junction with Sembawang Road towards another rural area of villages and farms. The view, from a stretch of the road that ran along a ridge, was what my father did describe as being the most scenic in Singapore that looked across a rolling landscape of vegetable farms for almost as far as the eye could see. Jalan Ulu Sembawang was also one of the roads that led to Lorong Gambas in the Mandai area – an area many who did National Service would remember it as a training area that was used up to perhaps the 1990s.

The end of the road - Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The end of the road – Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

A stop along the way that we did spend some time at was the hot springs, around which there seems now to be much superstition. The spring, which was discovered by a municipal ranger on the property of a Seah Eng Keong in 1908. Seah Eng Keong was the son of gambier and pepper plantation owner Mr Seah Eu Chin who I understand from Claire Leow, one half of the female duo who maintains All Things Bukit Brown and who joined us on the walk, also owned gambier and pepper plantations in the area. Seah Eu Chin would also be well known as being the founder of the Ngee Ann Kongsi.

The surviving well of the spring.

The surviving well of the spring.

The spring water was over the years, bottled in various ways and under various names, first by Mr Seah, and then by Fraser and Neave (F&N) from 1921. One of the names its was bottled as was Zombun which was, on the evidence of a newspaper article, a source of a joke – with waiters referring to “Air Zombun” as a similar sounding “Air Jamban” or water from the toilet in Malay.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

Bottling was to be disrupted by the war – the Japanese, known for their fondness for thermal baths, were said to have built such baths at the hot springs – the water, which flows out at around 66 degrees Celcius, with its strong sulphur content (which is evident from the unmistakable smell you would be able to get of it), is thought to have curative properties – especially for skin and rheumatic conditions.  It’s flow was disrupted by allied bombing in November 1944 and it was only in 1967 that F&N started re-bottling the water under a subsidiary Semangat Ayer Limited using the brand name Seletaris (now the name of a condominium that sits on the site of the plant).

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

While it did remain the property of F&N, many were known to have bathed at the spring before 1967 and also again after the plant was closed in the mid 1980s, when its land was acquired by the government. The spring – with water now running out of pipes and taps, in now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp – which initially meant that it was closed to the public. Since May 2002 however, after petitions were submitted to the authorities, the spring has been opened to the public. Access to the spring is now through a fenced pathway that cuts into the camp’s grounds. A warning is scribbled on the red brick structure that surrounds a surviving well that speaks of a curse – that anyone who vandalises the hot spring will be the subject of a curse.

The writing on the wall - a curse for any would be vandals.

The writing on the wall – a curse for any would be vandals.

From the spring and Jalan Ulu Sembawang, now a stub that leads to a wooded area where development doesn’t seem very far away – an international school is already being built there, we can to the end of the adventure. While it is sad to see how another place in Singapore which holds the memories of the gentle world I once enjoyed as a child has been transformed into another place I struggle to connect with; I did at least manage to find a few things that does, in some way remind of that old world that I miss. Developments in the area are however taking off at a furious pace and with the construction of elevated portion of the North-South Expressway that is due to start next year and will have a significant impact on the area’s landscape; it may not be long before it does become another place of beauty that we have abandoned in favour of a cold and overly manicured landscape in which there will be little left, except for “heritage” markers, to remind us of what it did once mean to us.

It now is a wooded area awaiting future development.

Jalan Ulu Sembawang is now is an area reclaimed by nature awaiting future development.

Where a school is now being built - the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.

Where a school is now being built – the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.





A cross at a crossroad

15 04 2013

The long and somewhat winding road journeys of my childhood are ones I now look back with much fondness. They are ones that were to put in touch with a Singapore that I grew to love, and a Singapore we have long forgotten. One of these drives which would take place during the Chinese New Year and on the occasions we ventured to one of the “ends of Singapore” to indulge in seafood, was to Punggol. Punggol was then a world away where the livestock population would in all probability have outnumbered the area’s human inhabitants.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

Punggol for me began at the junction where we would have to make a left turn from a busy Upper Serangoon Road even then to Punggol Road. It was at this point that it felt we would leave the built-up world behind and turn-off into what could probably have been considered a countryside we no longer have. It was where coconut trees seem to dominate the landscape (that at least was my impression) – that I noticed them more than anything else was probably because of the curious sight of many of them without their lightning struck tops – a sight that was in fact common throughout rural Singapore.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

The junction was one which was marked by two structures. One was the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary and the other a beautiful church which seemed out of place in the environment around it. And while much of the landscape of the area has been altered beyond recognition – the trees and high-density dwellings of pigs and poultry have now been replaced by towering blocks of high-density human dwellings and the stretch of Punggol Road where the junction is has been renamed as Hougang Avenue 8, the two structures – now looking further out of place in the new environment, are still there to serve as reminders of a time and place we would otherwise have little memories of.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

The church, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Nativity Church in short, is one that is hard to miss, with its steeple rising high above the structures around it. One of several beautiful examples of a legacy that the French Catholic Missionaries left behind in South-East Asia, the church is of a form we seem to have forgotten to appreciate. Several examples of the style, commonly used in Catholic houses of worship built by the French missionaries in the 1800s and in early 1900s exhibit, do exist on the island. These include the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the de-consecrated CHIJ Chapel (now part of the CHIJMES complex) and the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, all of which now feature in the growing list of Singapore’s National Monuments.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of the French Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of Neo-Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics. The marble statue of Mary in the foreground is interestingly a gift from Sultan Ibrahim of Johor in 1946.

Built in what can possibly be described as a European inspired Neo-Gothic style adapted for the tropics, the buildings are very similar in appearance. Nativity Church which was completed in 1901, is however, the only one that was placed in a rural setting – pointing not just to a pattern of faith of the community in the area, but also perhaps of a pattern of immigration to and settlement on the island of Singapore.

The transept which was an addition to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The transept which was an addition made in 1933 to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The area is of course one of several rural areas in which the Teochew community, the second largest group of Chinese immigrants to Singapore, was dominant. The community, many of whom converted to the Catholic faith as well as to other forms of Christianity, were involved in fishing, in farming, as well as in the rubber (and before that pineapple) plantations through much of the countryside along the northern coast of Singapore. With the community and the adoption of faith, missionaries erected several houses of worship – and there are, as a result, several reminders of this in the form of churches, or in the absence of them, parishes which had their origins in these rural Teochew communities. These include the Nativity Church, the Parish of St. Anthony (now in Woodlands) which was previously based off Stephen Lee Road in Mandai, and also a church with a very distinct Teochew flavour in its architecture, St. Joseph’s Church at Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Seeing the light - the soft light illuminating the nave - part of the original structure.

Seeing the light – the soft light illuminating the nave – part of the original structure.

The background to the parish community, the church, as well as on the architecture of the beautiful building is well documented. Much of this information is available on the church’s website, as well as on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s page on the building. Being a Catholic myself, buildings such as these represent a time when architecture and much of what when on around the church, was dedicated to the greater glory of the maker. On a personal level, my interactions with the parish and church are limited, coming to the church only on occasion – the last time I did spend some time in it was on the occasion of my sister’s wedding at the church some years ago. The opportunity to step in to the church again came recently when I found myself nearby with some time to spare.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

The nave of the church.

The nave of the church.

Churches are always places where I find a great sense of peace in and in the quiet of the Saturday morning I was there, it was just that I found in stepping through the huge doors at the entrance, finding the interior bathed in the soft natural light of the morning streaming through the generous openings typically found in the tropically adapted Neo-Gothic church design. The church both internally and externally is a visual treat. On the insides, its high vaulted ceiling is accompanied by the rows of arches which would typically line the nave. Focus is drawn towards the Sanctuary bathed in the coloured light of stained glass a building such as this would look bare without.

Some of the church's stained glass windows.

Some of the church’s stained glass windows.

The interior with its adornments and furnishings, is a wonderful reminder of how Catholic churches used to be. The dark stained carved wooden pews is a rare find now with most churches around having been built in more modern times. The walls of the transept are where the statues representing the various saints are placed. These are typical of most Catholic churches and in the older ones it would be in purpose built niches as the ones found in this church in which the statues are placed. The windows, which can be opened, provide not just natural ventilation, but also light – typical of architecture adapted for the tropically environment which we do not see in modern buildings built to be air-conditioned.

A view down the aisle.

A view down the aisle.

A statue of St. Vainney placed in a niche at the transept.

A statue of St. John Vianney placed in a niche at the transept.

There is a lot as well that is interesting about the church’s history, including that a statue of Mary was donated by Sultan Ibrahim of Johor (the great grandfather of the current Sultan of Johor). Placed in a prominent position in front of the church, that is a reminder of the close ties bewteen the southern sultanate and colony which was once a part of it. The church today, while serving the needs of the parish community – which is still predominently Teochew, has also reached out to newer migrants – since the end of last year, it is also where the Korean Catholic community has been based at.

Coloured glass windows.

Coloured glass windows which can be opened allow the church to be naturally illuminated and ventilated.

The church in continuing to serve the spiritual needs of the evolving community does stand as a reminder of the purpose it was built to serve. Gazetted as a National Monument since 2005, it is one that will also stand as a reminder of the area’s past, a past which with the spread of the urban world to the area, is one which is increasing hard to remember.





Landmarks on my northern journeys

4 04 2013

It was in days before the expressways made an appearance that a road trip to Malaysia (and back) would involve that seemingly endless journey along what appeared to be a long and winding Woodlands Road. My parents often took a drive up to the “Federation”, as my father would put it, providing me me many encounters of a Woodlands Road which had pretty much a far-away feel to it.

A factory from the 1960s.

A factory building on Woodlands Road that has been a marker of sorts from the 1960s.

There wasn’t much to do in the back seat back then, and passing time involved staring out the window which back in those days were kept opened to provide much needed ventilation. In watching the changing world outside as we passed, it would be recognisable structures or landscapes that I would keep a lookout for, each serving as a marker to provide an indication of where I was on the otherwise never-ending journey.

Now more of a road on which heavy vehicles get much joy in travelling way above the speed limit, Woodlands Road was in day before the BKE, the main trunk road linking Central Singapore to the Causeway.

Now more of a road on which heavy vehicles get much joy in travelling way above the speed limit, Woodlands Road was in day before the BKE, the main trunk road linking Central Singapore to the Causeway.

The end of Woodlands Road close to the Causeway was one that had several of these markers. Taking my usual place on the left side of the car, it would have been the cultivation ponds of the Vesop Monosodium Glutamate factory just after the 15th milestone of the road which always fascinated me that would have indicated the approach of the Causeway.

The Vesop MSG Factory (http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

The Vesop MSG Factory (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

On the return journey, there were several landmarks that were to provide me with the much appreciated welcome home, including the cluster of factories that line the southbound side of Woodlands just after the bend after the Sivan Temple at the 14½ milestone. The first would have been the Metal Box Factory with its very distinctive sign. The factory, since demolished, was  set on a low hill, occupying the site since 1951 when it was opened to manufacture metal cans to meet the needs of the local pineapple canning industry. The company had previously imported pre-fabricated cans for assembly in Singapore. The factory closed sometime in 1992. A blog post related to the factory and the area where it was which may be interest can be found on Lam Chun See’s Good Morning Yesterday: Singapore, 1961 – 20/4 Marsiling Road (by Tim Light).

The Metal Box Factory sign , seen during a strike by workers of the factory in 1963 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas)

The Metal Box Factory sign , seen during a strike by workers of the factory in 1963 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas)

Besides the Metal Box Factory, there were a few other recognisable factory buildings which stood out because of their elevated positions along the same stretch to look out for. One was the Khinco Factory located around the 13th milestone. The buildings of the factory are still around, falling seemingly into disrepair. The Khinco factory was one that produced a previously well known brand of metal office furniture in Singapore and Malaysia. The factory set up in 1967, was a joint venture between Khinco and National Art Metal Corporation of Australia. After going through several changes of ownership over the years, it went into receivership sometime in the early 1980s. The premises has since been taken over by Tan Chong Motor which operated a servicing centre there as well setting up a Quality Assurance Centre (on the basis of a sign which is still there) later.

The former Khinco factory.

The former Khinco factory.

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One other prominent building dating back to the 1960s which is still around was that of the Union Factory, just south of Mandai Road. The factory bottled the popular Pepsi Cola, Mirinda and Schweppes soft drinks in Singapore and more information on this can be found in a previous entry from June last year. The road is currently undergoing a transformation, particularly along the stretch south of Mandai Road and it won’t be long before these once familiar markers are replaced by landmarks which will define the what the new Singapore has become.

A peek through an opening in the gate ... a reminder perhaps of how the former Khinco factory buildings' were used.

A peek through an opening in the gate … a reminder perhaps of how the former Khinco factory buildings’ were used.





Finding the old in the new – a walk down part of Thomson Road

12 01 2013

The stretch of Thomson Road between Balestier Road and Moulmein Road is one that I am well acquainted with. It is a stretch that was an invariable part of the twelve years of almost daily bus journeys to kindergarten, primary and secondary school and best known perhaps for a religious landmark, the Catholic Church of St. Alphonsus, popularly known as ‘Novena Church’ – so much so that the church has lent its name to the area where it is located. The twelve years, from 1969 to 1980, were ones in which there were significant changes made to the road and its surroundings. One big change was the widening of the road which resulted in pieces of property on the west side of the road losing valuable frontages. Another was the addition of a private women’s and children’s hospital which has set the standards for maternity hospitals in Singapore.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened, but does contain a few recognisable landmarks.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened.

The hospital, Thomson Medical Centre, came up close to the end of the twelve years, occupying a plot of land at the start of the south end of the stretch. Known for its innovative approach towards the birth experience of mothers, it does today feature another innovation – the basement of the refurbished building hides one of the first mechanised car parks in Singapore which was added in the mid 2000s. The hospital is the brainchild of a well known gynaecologist, Dr. Cheng Wei Chen, better known as Dr. W. C. Cheng. Built at a cost of $10 million on a terrace on the western side of the road – one of the buildings it was built in place of was a glorious mansion which Dr. Cheng had used as his clinic, the hospital’s opening in 1979 saw a hospital built so to make delivery a less than clinical experience.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr. W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book).

The house which Dr. Cheng used as his clinic was a landmark in the area for many years. Standing on a terrace behind a wall, it never failed to catch my attention over the many bus journeys I made. The house I was to discover, does have an interesting history that goes well beyond the clinic. Besides being the home of Dr. Cheng’s in-laws – Dr. Cheng had moved his practice to the house in the early 1970s from a clinic he operated on the second floor of the old Cold Storage on Orchard Road, the house, was also where the origins of Novena Church in Singapore could be traced to. That I will come to a little later. Besides the clinic, there was another landmark (or so it seemed) that was brought down in 1978 to make way for the hospital – a four storey building named Adam Court and an associated two storey building which served as a garage. Adam Court housed one of the first Yamaha Music Schools in Singapore which moved into it at the end of the 1960s. A check in the online newspaper archives reveals that there was also a private school, Adam Court Educational Centre, which operated for a while in the building at the start of the 1970s. (I have also since posting this learnt that another music school belonging to Mrs. Madeline Aitken, who had once been described as the ‘grand dame of piano teachers’ had occupied the building before Yamaha moved in).

Another view of the mansion - it had been the belong to Dr Cheng's in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there.

Another view of the mansion – it had been the belong to Dr Cheng’s in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The mansion had also been the first premises of the Redemptorist mission which arrived in 1935 – the Redemptorists run the Novena Church in Singapore.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng's clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979. The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng’s clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

What is perhaps today the most recognisable landmark in the area is Novena Church. Its origins can be traced back to the arrival from Australia of the Redemptorist mission in Singapore in 1935. The Redemptorist community is best known for its promotion of devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, devotions referred to as ‘Novena’ from the Latin word ‘novem’ for nine – the devotions involve prayers made over nine consecutive occasions. Devotional prayer services or ‘Novena’ sessions held on Saturdays at the church have over the years proven to be very popular with both followers and non-followers of the faith and the current Redemptorist church, the Church of St. Alphonsus, has come to be referred to as ‘Novena Church’.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979. The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

The Redemptorist community upon their arrival, rented the mansion where Dr. Cheng was to later set up his clinic and only moved from the premises after the Second World War ended, first up Thomson Road to where the Chequers Hotel once stood (which later became the ill-fated Europa Country Club Resort). It at the second premises where the first public Novena devotions were held, commencing in November 1945. It was in 1950 that they moved to their current premises. A new chapel which became the Church of St Alphonsus (after the founder of the order) designed by Swan and Maclaren was built and was blessed on 14 May 1950. Several structures have been added since: a bell tower and residences at the back of the Church were added in 1956; side verandahs in the 1980s; and the St. Clement Pastoral Centre and new residences in the 1990s.

Inside Novena Church - the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Inside Novena Church – the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Even with the more recent additions the appearance of the church is still as recognisable as it was during my younger days. The church building itself is one dominated by triple arc pediment at the front. There is however, a huge change that may soon render that as a less recognisable feature of the church. Although the building has been gazetted for conservation on 8 June 2011, it will soon see itself in the shadow of a new and much larger church building which will come up next to it. This is part of a necessary $45 million expansion which will not only see a much-needed expansion of the church’s seating capacity, it will also see the construction of a basement car park and a new pastoral centre (the present one will be demolished to make way for the new building). Work will commence once 70% of necessary funds have been raised.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building (image source: http://novenachurch.com).

Besides the church, there are also several structures which date back to my days in the school or public bus. There are two sets of private apartment blocks on the same side of the church just north of it which seems to be a constant there. The block further from the church has a row of shops located beneath it. It was in that row of shops where one, Java Indah, had in the 1970s, sold the best lemper udang that I have bitten into. The cake shop was started by an Indonesian lady, Aunty Neo, sometime around 1973 – well before Bengawan Solo started. It was perhaps better known for its kueh lapis, which was also distributed through the various supermarkets. The shop was later run by Aunty Neo’s niece and moved for a while to Balestier Hill Shopping Centre before disappearing. The row of shops also contains a dive equipment shop which is still there after all these years – it was from the shop that I bought my first set of snorkeling equipment back in the late 1970s.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

The dive equipment shop today.

The dive equipment shop today.

Speaking of Balestier Hill Shopping Centre, that was an addition made sometime midway through the twelve year period. Situated across from where Thomson Medical Centre is today, the low-rise Housing and Development Board (HDB) cluster is where the very first Sri Dewa Malay barber shop moved to from its original location further south opposite Novena Church. Sri Dewa possibly started the Malay barber craze in the late 1960s and early 1970s and at its height, boasted of some 22 outlets. That outlet is one that I visited on many occasions – I was (as many of my schoolmates were) often sent there by the discipline master of Balestier Hill Technical School which I went to for technical classes in Secondary 3 and 4. He did always seem to have very different standards for what short and neat hair meant than our own discipline master.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

The cluster which a post office could once be found in has always seemed a rather quiet place. Work on it started sometime in 1975 and was completed in 1977, and it was built partly on land occupied by a row of terraced houses by Thomson Road. What perhaps was interesting was the land behind that row – it and the hill on which the technical school, the first to be purpose built (and two primary schools) came up in the early 1960s. That was once owned by the Teochew clan association Ngee Ann Kongsi and used as a Teochew cemetery around the turn of the 20th century. Evidence of this did surface during the clearing work to build Balestier Hill Shopping Centre – a coffin with some human remains was uncovered at the foot of the hill in December 1975.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

Right next to the road up to Balestier Hill in between the shopping centre and the private flats is a Shell service station which has been there since I first became acquainted with it. My father was a regular at the station, Yong Kim Service Station, from the days when he drove his Austin 1300. Loyalty gifts were commonly given to customers then, and my parents do still have some of the sets of cups and drinking glasses that were given out back at the end of the 1960s.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

Besides these structures, there are also several more which have not changed very much along the road. One is another religious complex, across from Novena Church, where the Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and the San Yu Adventist School can be found – which dates back to the 1950s. Not far from that is a house which has also been a constant there, retaining its original design over the years. The house is one that was affected by road widening – it once sat on a even larger plot of land which was lined with a row of palm trees along the road.

The Seventh Day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

The Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

Just south of Novena Church, across what is today Irrawaddy Road, is another part of the area which had for seemed to be always there. That however is also soon about to change. The cluster of blue and white buildings and a red brick wall in the fenced off compound takes one back to the late 1950s / early 1960s and were once where stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) (before that became corporatised) were located. They have since fallen into disuse and a recent tender exercise conducted by the Urban Redevelopment Corporation means that it will soon see it being redeveloped. The tender was awarded to Hoi Hup Realty Pte Ltd, Sunway Developments Pte Ltd and Hoi Hup J.V. Development Pte Ltd and is slated for mixed use development which will include a hotel.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

Adjacent to the former stores is where two storey shophouses which once lined the road and the Jewish Cemetery behind them have made way for a shopping mall, Novena Square (now Velocity @ Novena Square) and an Novena MRT station. The mall was completed in 2000 and was built by UOL. I remember the shophouses that lined the road for one thing – the image of an elderly man sitting on a chair outside the shophouse has remained in my memory from my upper primary school days. There was also a two storey house that had long stood at the corner of Thomson and Moulmein Roads which always seemed unoccupied and used as a storeroom during my primary school days which has since disappeared.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

One of the things I should perhaps mention is how busy the sidewalk down the slope from Novena Church were in the 1960s and early 1970s on Saturdays when hourly Novena services are held. Many among the thousands of church-goers that came and went thronged the sidewalks in search of treats from the food and snack stalls set up to cater for the crowd. Among the food vendors there were some who were to set up successful baking businesses later after the stalls were cleared.

The sidewalks just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.

The sidewalk just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.


Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention by Mr William Cheng, the architect of Thomson Medical Centre (TMC) that the old Adam Centre or Adam Court (Yamaha Music School) was not demoished but incorporated into the Right Wing Consultant Suite Block. That is where Dr. Cheng has his consultant suites on the ground floor. In addition, a new elevator core for 2 low speed lifts was added and annexed to the new TMC building with an extra floor was added.

Mr Cheng has also added that the TMC Building was designed and built in a record time of 8-9 months. During the construction Dr. Cheng did not maintained his practice at the renovated consultant suite on the ground of the old Adam Centre which he moved to from the old house and has remained there until today.

Mr Cheng also pointed out that iconic arches were introduced to the top of the TMC building’s façades to “maintain the spirit of the old 339 Thomson Road house”. These were moved to the new façades when the TMC building was extended in 2000 to 2002. The “innovative first-of-its kind in Singapore automatic computer controlled mechanical underground carpark” was built to provide additional car parking spaces.






Where Pepsi was once bottled on Woodlands Road

17 06 2012

Not far from where a well-remembered landmark is soon about to vanish, I was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar building that served as another landmark for me in a time that is now forgotten. It was in early days of my youth when that long and slow drive along Woodlands Road was to be tolerated in order to complete the journey to the Causeway. Then, buildings that caught my attention had served as landmarks that broke the monotony of the long journey. The building, an industrial building, was one that was unremarkable on its own. It stood out only because of what was manufactured in it – the obvious signs of which had stood out on the building’s façade. It was then, the premises of a certain Union Pte. Ltd. – the bottlers of Pepsi Cola, Mirinda and Schweppes soft drinks in Singapore and with the building placed prominently on a small hill was one that couldn’t at all be missed.

The premises on which Pepsi Cola was once bottled seen along Woodlands Road.

The bottling plant was opened in July 1969 – Union having invested a tidy sum of some three million dollars to take production and bottling of the popular brands of soft drinks to another level, prompting a move from their original premises in Havelock Road which dated back to their establishment in 1950. The move was to prove to be an ill-conceived one, as pressure from (somewhat ironically given the company’s name) the unions that represented their workers that was in part due to the move, was responsible for the company closing in 1974 following which the rights to bottling of the brands of soft drinks was won by Yeo Hiap Seng. The company and its premises in Woodlands was also involved in malicious rumours some two years before its closure when news spread that a dead body had been found in one of the vats used for production of Pepsi Cola and that bottles containing contaminated Pepsi had found their way into the market.

The factory building seen at its opening in July 1969 (source: National Archives).

The building today seems to have found a new lease of life, and seems to have been given a fresh coat of paint. Unremarkable as it is from an architectural viewpoint, I am grateful that I am still able to recognise it as one that lighted up those many journeys of a long time ago, journeys that coloured the days of an eventful childhood … and journeys that memories of, continue to bring colour to my life.





A landmark soon to vanish

16 06 2012

Long abandoned by an old world that it had once been a part of, the Shell service station at the end of Mandai Road had for many years now looked out of place in the emptiness of its surroundings. It would have once held a strategic position, being placed right at the end of one of the main routes that took vehicular traffic from the east over the top of the catchment reserve to Woodlands Road which connected with the West of the island, as well as to the North where the Causeway brought traffic across to Malaysia.

The end is here for a service station which has been a landmark at the end of Mandai Road at its junction with Woodlands Road for as long as I know.

The station has for me, also long been a marker. It marked not just the point where the then narrow and rural Mandai Road joined the long and equally narrow Woodlands Road, but also when the zoo came to Mandai, as the point where we would see signs showing the way to the zoo. I had on many occasions passed by the station – on the long journeys to and from the Causeway of my childhood and also later when it was along the route of bus service number 171 which I would take from camp while doing my National Service to Sembawang Road where I could connect with a 169 that took me to my home in Ang Mo Kio. The station had then and for long, worn the look of one of the old world it was a part of. Even with the more recent makeovers, it did, when it was still operating, seem set in that old world – the washroom was an ‘outhouse’ – in every sense of the word.

The outhouse see from behind a fence.

It has been a while since I’ve driven by an area that one doesn’t really need to drive through anymore with the new expressways that has taken traffic from both Woodlands and Mandai Roads. I did earlier today and saw what for long I had suspected would happen – the station, already abandoned, was being hoarded up for demolition. Having already driven past it, I decided to turn back to bid an old acquaintance farewell. As I took a final look at what had for so long been a familiar face, it is with sadness that I realise that the last marker of a world that has been all but forgotten will soon itself be erased.

The hoardings coming up around the landmark.

A soon to vanish sight.

Another soon to vanish sight.

Maybe the last remnant of an old world – a shed that seems to be beyond the area enclosed by the hoardings that have come up.


Update:

Good news! It seems that the station will be with us for some time to come … thanks to a reader, Mr Francis Ang, an update on what is happening at the station and also a few photographs (one of which I have posted below) have been provided which show that the station is apparently being upgraded. While it will perhaps lose some of that old world appeal it has had – it will still be right there where it seems to always have been!

The station as seen on 18 June 2012 (photo courtesy of Mr Francis Ang).









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