An attempt to capture the beautiful light as darkness falls at 7.42 pm on 19 May 2013 at Lower Peirce Reservoir.
An attempt to capture the beautiful light as darkness falls at 7.42 pm on 19 May 2013 at Lower Peirce Reservoir.
Once again, I found myself seeking the peace and joy of the twilight at Lower Peirce Reservoir away from the crowds on a Saturday evening, and have these two photographs taken in the semi-darkness with just enough light in the sky to permit both the sky and the surroundings to be evenly exposed. The photographs were taken at about half an hour after sundown, the first at 7.37 pm and the second at 7.43 pm.
It is for this treat that was a most beautiful welcome to the new day that I am glad that I resisted the urge to have a sleep-in on the first of May – despite having arrived back in Singapore late the night before.
6.58 am on 18 April 2013. Dawn breaks over an old world in Singapore in the midst of change – the former Seletar Airbase which is shedding its old world feel in embracing a new world – the Seletar Aerospace Park .
7.20 am on the last day of March 2013, a man is seen casting a net, dwarfed by the silhouettes of towering structures of the approaching new world. The casting of the net, was an economic activity on the strait which was common in times past. Economic activities of the modern world have in the last four decades or so, made their appearance on the strait, and have made the activities of the old world less relevant.
The Straits of Johor where this photograph was taken, also known as the Tebrau Strait or Selat Tebrau, was once the domain of a group of sea dwellers, a nomadic people referred to as the Orang Laut (which translates to “Sea People”) or Sea Gypsies. The sub-group of the Orang Laut, referred to as the Orang Seletar or in their own language, Kon Seletar, moved around on boats which also served as homes through mangroves which once dominated both sides of the strait, living off the waters. The boats they lived on were about 20 feet long with a stove at one end and their dwellings at the other end under an awning of sorts.
The suggestions are that the group, who had already established themselves in the area well before Raffles landed in 1819 – it was reported that there were an estimated 200 Orang Seletar living on some 30 boats in Singapore when Raffles landed, took its name from the Sungei Seletar or Seletar River – which once spilled into the strait (it has since been dammed at its mouth).
Another suggestion is that the group had in fact given their name to the river. Seletar is also a name that the northern coastal area of Singapore which included what is Sembawang today (Sembawang Road was originally called Seletar Road) became known as. Seletar Island which is close to the mouth of Sungei Simpang, had in fact hosted a community of Orang Seletar up to 1967 or so.
One of the last to settle on land, the Orang Seletar have today largely assimilated into the larger Malay society and a greater number of them now live on the Johor side of the strait. In Singapore, there were several individuals from the community who intermarried and settled in Kampong Tanjong Irau. The kampong was also know to be the home of some Orang Kallang, another Orang Laut group who were originally from the mouth of the Kallang River who had initially been displaced from places such as Kampong Kallang Rokok on the Kallang River, moving first to the Seletar area. The construction of the airbase at Seletar meant they had to move again and some chose to move westwards to Tanjong Irau.
For me, one of the most difficult things about being at home in Singapore is how little there is of what ties me to it that I can hold on to. The Singapore of today is one which bears little or no resemblance to the Singapore I grew up in, and one which I am very much attached to. I often find myself overcome with that sense of longing and sadness that accompanies a realisation that I can never return to that Singapore I fell in love growing up in.
I find myself wandering through many of the altered spaces, in search of the little reminders that remain of those times forgotten, often leaving only with regret. Many of these spaces, now devoid of a way of life it once supported, are empty except for the clutter of ornaments inherited from the modern world.
There are but a few spaces which have been spared this clutter. It is in the echoes of these spaces left without their souls, that I sometimes hear the singing of a song the lyrics of which might once have familiar.
A familiar tune is still heard along the northern shores. Spared thus far from the interventions the modern world is too fond of, it is where the memory of naturally formed beaches, now a rare find, has been preserved. It is where perhaps a memory of a way of life we have forgotten can also be found in the casting of nets and rowing of sampan–like hulls.
Alas, the familiar tune may soon be one we are to forget. The advance of a world in which it is hard to find sanity, has reached its doorstep. We see swanky beach front units that reek of the smell of money sprout in an area in which the smells would have been that of seawater soaked wood, of fishing nets drying in the sun, and of the catch from the sea. For how much longer will I be able to hear the familiar tune in my ears, I do not now know, but it is a tune I am determined to try to hear for as long as I am able to.
About the beach and the former coastal villages :
The beach in the photographs is one of the last natural stretches of sandy beaches left in Singapore. It stretches from the seafront of Sembawang Park eastwards past the seawall at the former Kampong Wak Hassan and past the seafront area of the former Kampong Petempatan Melayu or Kampong Tengah, where it is broken by the mouth of a diverted and canalised former tributary of Sungei Simpang, Sungei Simpang Kiri. It would have run further east towards Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang – that area, currently used as a military training ground and is inaccessible, is a reserve site for public housing and will be the future Simpang New Town – the coastline of which will be altered by land reclamation based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan 2008.
Kampong Petempatan Melayu or Kampong Tengah was a Malay Settlement which was established in the 1960s on some 16.5 ha. of land acquired by the Government from the Bukit Sembawang Group. It was a group of three coastal villages just east of the Naval Base which also included Kampong Tanjong Irau to its east and Kampong Wak Hassan to its west. A mosque, touted as the “last kampong mosque in Singapore”, the Masjid Petempatan Melayu, was built in Kampong Tengah which still stands today, despite the disappearance of the village.
Coming a full circle, the land fronting the beach is currently being developed by the Bukit Sembawang Group as a luxury development, Watercove Ville which will see some 80 strata houses built, and in all probability, the beach and beachfront will soon have to be made over.
What is possibly one of the last natural accessible stretches of sand along the coastline of the island of Singapore lies along the northern shoreline off Sembawang Park, stretching to the area off the former coastal villages of Kampong Wak Hassan and Kampong Tengah. Except for the attempt to “renew” the area around Sembawang Park which will result in it losing much of its previous charm, the shoreline in the area is one that is relatively untouched. Left in an almost natural state, the beach is one rich in character and in which the memories of a world that has ceased to exist can still be found. With property developments gaining pace in the area, it probably will not be long before the memories provided by the old but falling seawall and the natural beach, are paved over in the same way much of our previously beautiful coastline has. Until then, it is one of the few places close to a world I would otherwise find hard to remember, in which I can find a rare escape from the concretised world that Singapore has too quickly become.
About the former Kampong Wak Hassan:
The former village (kampong or kampung as it is spelt today), was one of several coastal villages that were found just to the east of Sembawang Road and the former British Naval Base, running along the coastline to Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang. While the coastline played host to the nomadic inhabitants of the Straits of Johor, the Orang Laut, specifically the Orang Seletar, the kampong, stands as the oldest of the settlements in the stretch.
The village came to the location after work to build the huge naval base which ran along the northern coast from what is today Sembawang Road west to to the Causewayin the late 1920s displaced the the original Kampong Wak Hassan which grew from a coconut grove founded by Wak Hassan bin Ali at the original mouth of Sungei Sembawang (the area just west of what is today Sembawang Shipyard) in the 1914 (being granted rights by the Straits Settlements’ Commissioner of Lands to the use of the land stretching from the mouth of the river to Westhill Estate – which became Chong Pang Village).
While the base did provide residents of the village with employment opportunities, most of the villagers who may have originally been employed in rubber plantations which once occupied the lands around the coast and in the coconut groves, were involved in fishing.
The village besides being the oldest in the area, was also the longest lasting. While most of the inhabitants of the other villages were resettled at the end of the 1980s, the last inhabitants of Kampong Wak Hassan only moved out as recently as in 1998.
Previous posts related to Kampong Wak Hassan and the greater Sembawang area:
A place to greet the new day:
A sunrise to remember in a part of Singapore we may soon have to forget, the un-manicured and rather wild looking shores of northern Singapore, off the former Kampong Wak Hassan.
The colours of twilight, Lower Peirce Reservoir, 7.21 pm, 16 March 2013. I thought the cloud formation together with its reflection off the waters of the reservoir resembled inkblots used in Rorschach psychological tests.
The Singapore of my wonderful childhood, was one that was very different to the one I now find myself waking up to. It was one where we could find pleasure not in the clutter of the pompous paraphernalia we now seek to embrace, but in a simplicity we can no longer find beauty in. It was a world of places marked not by the cold hard stare of concrete, glass and steel that had rendered them faceless, but one where escapes could be found in the unique charms of places that even today, we seek to forget.
It is in a world we have forgotten, that I have come to enjoy a peaceful moment in. It is a world which in being seemingly far removed from the cold, grey and unfamiliar world that has grown around me; I take great joy having a moment in quiet solitude in. It is also one in which I find a sanity that can no longer be found in the Singapore I struggle to feel at home in. The world is one which will soon change. A change necessary, as we are told, for the small island we call home to move forward. A change which, as with the many changes we have been forced to accept, we will surely look back at with regret.
A place I am glad is there – at least for now, in which I find an escape from the unbearably overcrowded world Singapore has become, is a quiet and somewhat forgotten corner of northern Singapore where the former Kampong Wak Hassan once was. It has become for me not just a world where I run off to for that rare moment of calm, but also where I am able to take in the joy and the surprise that the break of day brings in the changing hues at sunrise …
7.04am 21 December 2012. Sunrise over the Straits of Johor.
A couple of photographs taken of the orangey night sky about half an hour following sunset on the last evening before time was supposed to end.
The first was taken at 7.28 pm and the second at 7.35 pm.
This year’s North-East Monsoons has brought us lots of rain, so much so that the sky at dawn has more often than not been covered in a pall of grey cloud with spectacular shows of colour at sunrise being very much a rarity this month. The pall did seem to lift the last two mornings which did result with two very different and unusual celebrations of the new day:
The wonderful colours of sunset that brought what turned out to be an exceptionally beautiful day to an end …
It has been a while since I last took the effort to welcome the new day. The haze filtered sunrises of late have been somewhat subdued and rather uninspiring. One sunrise that I did manage to catch was on the morning of Hari Raya Haji, as the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha is known to us in Singapore, at what has become one of my favourite spots to welcome the day in Singapore, the water’s edge where the former Kampong Wak Hassan once was. The show of colours that accompanied the sunrise were not one of the more spectacular shows that I have observed at the spot. It was however one that was unusual – the cloud laden sky that might have provided the canvas for a dull pink and grey painting did instead find itself decorated with a purple hue at first light, with pockets of gold in places where the clouds had parted.
In the glow of the light of the rising sun, I am for a brief moment fooled into thinking that I had found myself in the world that once. I see the silhouette of a man standing by a net. It is not the net of fishermen however that I see, but one of the modern world to keep us from a part of the sea wall which is in imminent danger of collapsing. The sea wall is perhaps one of the last that’s standing in the area to remind us of that world that once was, its resistance against not just the forces of the environment but also of the winds of change, proving somewhat futile. The winds of change do in fact seem to be blowing in the direction of the area – a large part of undeveloped land to the south of the former kampong has been placed behind hoardings – possibly being cleared for the beginnings of the huge sea of grey that is to be Simpang New Town, a new Housing and Development Board (HDB) estate planned for the area that will stretch eastwards to Sungei Seletar (Seletar River).
The land which has been placed behind hoardings was for a while a wild and partly wooded area. Cleared out at the end of the 1980s, it had been a piece of land in an area dominated by rivers that ran through it, the swamp land around the coastal and estuarine areas, fish ponds that were carved out of the swamps, kampongs, rubber plantations and coconut groves. It was one hidden from most of us and one that I have very little knowledge of, except for the stretch on the northern coast where Kampong Wak Hassan was, eastwards to Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang.
My first encounters with the piece of land were in the mid 1990s. It was not more than a barren piece of land then, land which had just been cleared and levelled of the undulations that had once shaped the landscape that was then used for military training. Each encounter was one that required a bumpy passage, which, when seated at the back of a 3-tonner, often meant inhaling an unhealthy dose of dust that the trucks threw up.
My brief encounters with the piece of land in more recent times had been happier ones. Besides it being a wonderful place to catch the varying moods that accompany the brightening of the new day, it also is a piece of greenery in which I could find great peace in. I am greatly saddened that as with another place not so far away that I had enjoyed celebrating the new day in, it may never again be.
In a Singapore that is changing too fast, it is not only places from the distant past, but also places that we have become acquainted with in more recent times to in more recent times, that are disappearing all to quickly. One such place is a little corner of the new Sembawang, a mostly residential neighbourhood that has risen out of the ashes of parts of what had been Chong Pang Village. The corner was an area that had for a while been left undeveloped with a few mature trees on it, silhouettes of which against the backdrop of the break of day to the east, made for an especially pretty sight. It will however, not be the silhouettes of trees that we now will see, but that of bulldozers that uprooted the trees at the end of the last week, silhouettes that will, as were those of the trees, be all but temporary – the dark shadows cast by a cold grey industrial building will all too soon dominate the once pretty view. And when those shadows are cast, I will be glad to have seen the corners as it once was, for it will not be the shadows or the cold grey structure that I see, but that of my memory of it in its former glory.