The first drive-in in Malaysia and Singapore

22 06 2013

For many of my generation, the very first encounters with American style fast-food would have probably consisted of root beers, hamburgers, fries and hotdogs at one of two A&W restaurants present in Singapore – at least mine was. That was at the drive-in at Dunearn Road, straddling the Bukit Timah canal close to the University of Singapore, which my parents brought my sister and me to for a treat (fast-food was relatively expensive in those days). It was also my one and only drive-in dining experience for which I remember the ice-cream that came at the end of the treat more than anything else.

A&W would have given the first American fast-food experience to many of my generation.

A&W would have given the first American fast-food experience to many of my generation.

Drive-in restaurants, or drive-ins were huge in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. The arrival of Singapore’s first – the A&W at Dunearn Road in 1970, two years after the first A&W outlet opened at the MSA Building (later SIA Building) in 1968, came at the end of a decade when we were to receive much greater exposure to American popular culture, of which both fast-food and drive-ins were very much a representation of, through the introduction of television (introduced to Singapore in 1963).

For some of us, nothing comes close to having a root beer at A&W in a mug chilled in a freezer.

For some of us, nothing comes close to having a root beer at A&W in a mug chilled in a freezer.

While the A&W outlet was the first drive-in in Singapore, it wasn’t the first drive-in to come to this part of the world. That distinction lies with the A&W drive-in that opened in Petaling Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur in neighbouring Malaysia, in 1967 – four years after the first A&W outlet opened its doors at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in the Malaysian capital. The drive-in, which incidentally is still operating (although not as a drive-in), is one I have long familiar with. I would probably have developed an impression of it from one of the many driving trips I made in the back of my father’s car to the “Federation” – as my father often referred to Malaysia, as it was close to Shah’s Hotel – another long time landmark in the Taman Jaya area where the drive-in is located.

The first drive-in restaurant in Malaysia and Singapore - the A&W at Taman Jaya in Petaling Jaya, which is still operating (albeit not as a drive-in).

The first drive-in restaurant in Malaysia and Singapore – the A&W at Taman Jaya in Petaling Jaya, which is still operating (albeit not as a drive-in).

The hot and humid climate we do get in Malaysia and Singapore was possibly a reason that the popularity of the drive-in, a feature of life of American suburbia, did not really take-off. A few more drive-ins did appear on both sides of the Causeway over the years, including one that opened at Kallang near the stadium (where the cluster of fast-food restaurants is today) in 1978 – around the time I was chasing Coney Dogs, Root Beers and A&W straws at their outlet in Dhoby Ghaut close to Cathay. Sadly for us in Singapore who do have memories of drive-ins and first fast-food experiences at A&W restaurants, both have disappeared. The drive-in at Kallang was converted not long after it opened to a sit-in only restaurant. The original A&W drive-in closed in 1986, making way for a canal widening exercise. The restaurant itself, despite its ambitious expansion in the 1980s, could not compete with the big names in fast-food, who by the 1980s, had established themselves in Singapore. In 2001, it closed seven of its twelve outlets, when the last franchise holder in Singapore, KUB Holdings of Malaysia, took over. With losses amounting to an estimated 1.5 million dollars, KUB decided to shut A&W’s operations on the island in 2003, with the last outlet to be shut being the one at the airport. With that, the only way we in Singapore could get that root beer fix was across the Causeway. Looking at the state of the outlets in Malaysia, it doesn’t look that there is much time left for us to do that – and with it, the days of the Root Beer and Coney Dog (now in its 50th year) and more recently introduced A&W offerings such as the waffle and curly fries, will soon be days which have passed.





The changing landscape at the ninth mile

15 06 2013

One part of Singapore where the landscape has seemed to be in a state of constant flux – at least in more recent times, is the area from the 9th to the 1oth milestone of Bukit Timah. The area is one that has long been associated with the old railway, being one of two locations in the Bukit Timah area where an overhead railway truss bridge can be found, and where the train used to run quite visibly along large stretches of the length of the road.

Seeing the tailend of the trains the area is very much associated with - train operations ceased on 30 June 2011.

Seeing the tailend of the trains the area is very much associated with – train operations ceased on 30 June 2011.

A passing train in the 9 1/2 mile area - the stretch was one where the trains running close to the road were quite visible.

A passing train in the 9 1/2 mile area being captured by a crowd in June 2011 – the stretch was one where the trains running close to the road were quite visible.

The truss bridge at the 9th milestone.

The truss bridge at the 9th milestone.

The ninth milestone area is now in a state of change.

The ninth milestone area is now in a state of change.

Another view northwards.

Another view northwards – road widening work is very noticeable.

A train running across the bridge seen just before the closure of the railway in 2011.

A train running across the bridge seen just before the closure of the railway in 2011.

Now abandoned by the railway – the railway ceased operations through Singapore with its terminal moving to Woodlands Train Checkpoint on 1 July 2011, the bridge does remain as what is perhaps one of two reminders of the railway, the other being the two rows of single storey houses facing Upper Bukit Timah Road straddling Jalan Asas which we now know as The Rail Mall, which in being named after the railway, does help to preserve its memory.

The row of single storey houses straddling Jalan Asas in 1989. The houses have since been converted into The Rail Mall.

The row of single storey houses straddling Jalan Asas in 1989. The houses have since been converted into The Rail Mall (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Cordeiro).

Another photograph of what today has become The Rail Mall.

Another photograph of what today has become The Rail Mall (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Cordeiro).

All around the area, the construction of  Phase II of the Downtown Line (DTL) of the Mass Raid Transit System (MRT) which started before the railway abandoned it, is very much in evidence. The work being done has left little in its wake untouched, with a wedge being driven between the two carriageways which make up Upper Bukit Timah Road at its junction is with Hillview Road, just north of The Rail Mall, and disfiguring much of the area as we once know it.

9 1/4 milestone Bukit Timah now dominated by new kids on the block as well as cranes and construction equipment.

9 1/4 milestone Bukit Timah now dominated by new kids on the block as well as cranes and construction equipment.

Local model and TV host Denise Keller with sister Nadine seen during a Green Corridor organised walk in the area on the final weekend before the train operations ceased in June 2011.

Local model and TV host Denise Keller with sister Nadine seen during a Green Corridor organised walk in the area on the final weekend before the train operations ceased in June 2011 – even since then, there has been quite a fair bit of change that has come to the area.

Looking down Hillview Road from the junction, we now see that two landmarks in the area which have survived until fairly recently, have also fallen victim to the developments which will also see roads being widened – a major widening exercise is currently taking place along Upper Bukit Timah Road. A railway girder bridge which looked as if it was a gateway to an area it hid which had housing estate and factories which came up around the 1950s and 1960s, has already been dismantled. That went soon after the railway did. Its removal does pave the way for the road to eventually be widened, thus permitting the private residential developments intended for the vacant plot of land that was occupied by the former Princess Elizabeth Estate. The land for the estate, based on newspaper reports from the 1950s, was a donation by Credit Foncier intended for public housing made to the Singapore Improvement Trust in 1950 and has somewhat sacrilegiously been sold off to the highest bidder.

A train crossing the now missing girder bridge at Hillvew Road in early 2011.

A train crossing the now missing girder bridge at Hillvew Road in early 2011.

Along with the bridge, a building that has long been associated with the corner of Upper Bukit Timah and Hillview Roads is another structure we would soon have to bid farewell to. Completed in 1957 as a branch of the Chartered Bank (which later became Standard Chartered Bank), the building has also long been one of the constants in the area. When the branch vacated the premises early this month, it would have have seen some fifty-six years and two months of operation at the building, having opened on 6 April 1957.

The recently closed Chartered Bank branch building with a notice of its closure.

The recently closed Chartered Bank branch building with a notice of its closure.

Rendered insignificant by hoardings, towering cranes and construction equipment – as well as more recent buildings in the vicinity that now dominate the landscape, the bank building occupying the corner of Hillview Road on a little elevation was one that, in greener and quieter days, was not missed. It provided great help to me as a landmark on the bus journeys I took to visit a friend’s house up at Chestnut Drive, two bus stops north, back in the 1980s.

The Chartered Bank, a popularly referred to landmark in the area, as it looks today.

The bank as it looked in 2010.

It would probably take a few more years for the dust in the area to settle. And judging by the way developments seem to be taking most of what did once seem familiar, by the time the dust does settle,  there may be little for us to make that connection with the world  the area did host in days that already seem forgotten.

A last look at a landmark soon to vanish.

A last look at a landmark soon to vanish.

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Bukit Timah Railway Station revisited

7 02 2013

It was in the final days of the Malayan Railway’s operations through Singapore just over a year and a half ago that the former Bukit Timah Railway Station drew crowds it that had not previously seen before. The station, built in 1932 as part of the Railway Deviation which took the railway towards a new terminal close to the docks at Tanjong Pagar, was one that was long forgotten. Once where prized racehorses bound for the nearby Turf Club were offloaded, the station’s role had over time diminished. Its sole purpose had in the years leading up to its final moments been reduced to that of a point at which authority for the tracks north of the station to Woodlands and south of it to Tanjong Pagar was exchanged through a key token system. The practice was an archaic signalling practice that had been made necessary by the single track system on which the outbound and inbound trains shared. It had in its final days been the last point along the Malayan Railway at which the practice was still in use and added to the impression one always had of time leaving the station and its surroundings behind. It was for that sense of the old world, a world which if not for the railway might not have existed any more,  for which it had, in its calmer days, been a place where one could find an escape from the concrete world which in recent years was never far away. It was a world in which the sanity which often eludes the citizens of the concrete world could be rediscovered. It is a world, despite the green mesh fencing now reminding us of its place in the concrete world, which still offers that escape, albeit one which will no longer come with those little reminders of a time we otherwise might have long forgotten.

Scenes from the station’s gentler days

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That plain looking building that got us to stop …

24 03 2011

(at two that is!)

Passing by Dunearn Road the other day, I noticed a building that had I had forgotten about that once stood prominently close to the junction with Newton Circus. It was a building that stood out not so much as a great piece of architectural work, but one that was built on simple lines that reflected the frugality of the uncertain times during the era in which it was built. I was pleasantly surprised to find it still there, as many of its fellow buildings of the era had since made way for the wave of modernisation that has swept through Singapore.

The plain white building at the corner of Dunearn Road and Gilstead Road.

The building was when I was growing up, occupied by the Singapore Family Planning Board, serving as the board’s headquarters, right up until 1985, when the Board was closed and its work passed on to the Ministry of Health. The Board itself was formed in 1966, taking over the work of a voluntary organisation, the Singapore Family Planning Association (formed in 1949), which the building was originally built for, having been allocated the plot of land at the corner of Duneran and Gilstead Roads in 1963. The building was completed in 1968 by which time the Board had taken over from the Family Planning Association.

The building which now houses several health support groups including the Breast Cancer Foundation and the National Stroke Association, started its life as the headquarters of the Singapore Family Planning Board in 1968.

A side view of the building.

I suppose that most of my generation would remember the Board’s efforts in the 1970s more than the building, with its distinctive logo and its slew of posters and slogans which one really couldn’t miss, which sought to remind us with what was usually a picture of two girls, that, “Girl or Boy, Two is Enough”. This was everywhere, and with the powers of persuasion that most couldn’t really afford to ignore, the programme was one of the more successful ones, which many now feel contributed to the current low birth rate amongst Singaporeans. The campaign had been part of the Board’s second (of three) five year plans, launched in 1971, the first being aimed at selling the idea of family planning to 60 percent of married women aged between 15 and 44, and the third being to persuade the young to delay marriage and have children later. Based on available statistics, the success of the policies initiated by the Board can be seen in the total fertility rate falling from 3.07 in 1970 to 1.82 at the start of the 1980s. The total fertility rate in 2010 was 1.16.

Posters produced by the Family Planning Board over the years (source: National Archives of Singapore).

The National Family Planning Programme was launched with the formation of the Board in 1966 (source: http://www.healthcare50.sg).

The building which today houses several health support groups that includes the Breast Cancer Foundation, the Singapore National Stroke Association and the Epilepsy Care Group Singapore, has for a while, faded into its surroundings despite having once had a prominent position close to Newton Circus, being in the shadow of the flyovers over Newton Circus that now dominate the area. Chances are, it will soon fade altogether, being in a prime residential area … to be replaced by a luxury apartment block that the area seems to have welcomed, and with it, some of the memories we have of a programme that went too well …

A signboard belonging to the National Stroke Association in front of the building.

The porch at the entrance to the building.





A colourful journey in black and white

14 03 2011

I have always been one for train rides, taking one every opportunity I get whenever I find myself with time to spare, be it from the grand stations of the great European cities, or from stations closer to home, with a particular liking for the old style railways that I sometimes stumble upon. In Singapore, the opportunity had presented itself throughout my life I guess, but somehow, I never embarked on a journey from the grand old station at Tanjong Pagar until I was well into my adulthood, making many trips in the 1990s. Trains always present themselves as a convenient means to get around from one city to another, taking one from the centre of the city right into the heart of another. So it is with the Malayan Railway as well – for another few months at least when Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB or KTM) moves the terminal station from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. With that, we will bid goodbye to the old railway lines which has served Singapore since the turn of the last century, as well as an old railway station in the heart of the city.

The last opportunity to take a train from an old style station in the heart of Singapore, on a line that has served Singapore since 1932 (parts of it date back to the turn of the last century), through Singapore's countryside, before train services terminate at Woodlands by the time the 1st of July arrives.

As mentioned in my previous post, I took another ride recently, just for the sake of reliving my previous journeys before the chance to do so evaporates once KTM moves operations to Woodlands. It will be a shame not to have had that experience, one that involves arriving or departing from the platforms which had served as the southern terminal to the Malayan Railway for eight decades from its days as the FMSR. Once the move is made, Singapore would lose not just another historical link it has had with the Malay States in the Malayan Peninsula, but also a proper train station to take a romantic journey on a train from. What will also go are the well worn tracks that served us so well, laid over a corridor of land that probably due to the railway, has remained untouched and relatively green; as well as the many markers left behind by the railway including the railway bridges, signal posts, railway buildings and control huts, distance markers and the last remaining level crossings in Singapore.

The platforms that have served as the southern terminal point of the Malayan Railway for eight decades.

The choice of the destination for the journey, was one that involved a short trip to one of the main towns in the southern Malaysian State of Johore which borders Singapore, some 90 kilometres north. The town is close enough for a slow paced day trip, and close enough that train tickets to and from are sold as “shuttle” or commuter train tickets available 24 hours prior to the journey. Kluang, along with the destination of my previous outing, Gemas, featured prominently in the final push through Malaya by the Japanese invading forces and was General Yamashita’s headquarters during the dark days at the end of January 1942. It had been a place that I knew about since the early days of my childhood being a town which my grandmother disappeared to leaving me without the stories she would relate to me as a young boy for a weekend.

The platform at Kempas Baru.

Container carriages at Kempas Baru Station.

Passengers boarding the train at Kulai Station.

Train rides, especially through the stations along the Johore length of the railway and walkabouts in Malaysian towns can be very colourful experiences, so much so that they sometimes distract one from the old world charm of the journey and the towns. I thought it would be nice to show another side of the journey and Kluang itself without colour as the images would capture a mood that would otherwise be lost in full colour.

The gentle rocking of the train gives the carriages a sleepy feel ...

A passenger at the end of the carriage.

The conductor.

Arriving at Kluang Station.

Kluang Station.

Kluang itself presents itself as a sleepy town, with the station being perhaps one of the busier places in the town, coming alive as passengers and well wishers gather on the platforms. The station itself hosts an institution in the town, a coffee shop, the Kluang Rail Coffee, that seems to be the star attraction of the town.

Kluang Station is the location of a well known and well patronised coffee shop.

The five foot way of a row of shophouses along Jalan Station.

A closed gate of a shop.

Kluang is a destination for photographers.

The town has an old world feel that maybe could have been that of the Singapore of half a century ago. Beyond its sleepy façade, the town does present some interesting finds. We stumbled upon an old Chinese medicine shop in a row of old shophouses along Jalan Mersing with seedy looking second storey hotels served by well worn wooden staircases, which we later learnt were places one would find ladies of the night. At then end of the row was a coffee shop which had some wonderful tasting treats and quite good coffee, and it was on the recommendation of a passer-by that we made a pit stop there, observing that the tables and floor of the old coffee shop were much cleaner than what we had become accustomed to in Singapore where tables are often cleaned with a swipe of an oily rag.

Not one of the staircases with a seedy destination.

The proprietor of the Chinese Medicine Shop.

Cabinets at the Chinese Medicine Shop.

Tools of the trade (at a Chinese Medicine Shop which has been at its location on Jalan Mersing since the 1950s).

The coffee shop along Jalan Mersing.

The beef noodle seller.

Won Tan Mee man.

Coffee Powder seller.

The slow pace of life extends to the coffee shop.

Leaving the coffee shop, we stepped out into a pretty hot day, which thankfully wasn’t accompanied by much humidity. Still that perhaps made the lazy stroll through town even lazier, and the first chance we got, we stepped into a modern shopping centre and the reward of some bubble tea, right across from a herbal tea vendor on his tricycle. The bubble tea outlet was crawling with customers as was the fast food outlet inside the shopping centre, leaving the streets outside deserted and somewhat forlorn.

A streetside tailor.

Typical street in Kluang.

From the shopping centre, we decided to visit the church that my grandmother visited all those years back – a plaque confirming that Archbishop Olcomendy of Malacca and Singapore (a throw back to the pre-independence archdiocesan boundaries that once existed), had consecrated the church in 1964. The airy little church at the end of Jalan Omar near the station is reminiscent of some of the village churches that once existed in Singapore and is simple in form and architecture.

Church of St. Louis, built in 1964.

Stained glass inside the Church of St. Louis.

Pews inside the church.

It was a short walk to the station next, to sit down at the much touted Railway Coffee shop. It was packed when we arrived just after it opened again at 2 pm, leaving us with a little wait … It was more for the atmosphere that sitting in that old cafe in an old railway station that might have been built in the early 1900s provided than maybe the fare the coffee shop offered. Soon, it was time to take the journey back … another one into Tanjong Pagar, where food stalls that remind us of days gone would soon be seeing their final days. Even if it is not for the train ride it is still worth a visit to the station to visit the makan stalls for chances are when the station finds a second life it might be where only the well heeled would dine. To top a visit to what is still very much a part of Malaysia as is the railway line, why not have something at the station that has become synonymous with street fare across the Causeway … a greasy but very tasty Ramly burger.

Like much of the world we live in ... old is being replaced by the new.

Back at Kluang Station.

Passengers waiting at the platform.

Another scene at the station.

Inside the Kluang Rail Coffee shop.

Having a conversation over a cup of coffee inside the Kluang Rail Coffee shop.

The busiest part of town?

On the 1543 shuttle into Tanjong Pagar ...

A locomotive.

The train ride provides an opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

A last chance to grab a Ramly burger at Tanjong Pagar ...

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To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.






There I go again … another journey through Tanjong Pagar

11 03 2011

I guess I have not had enough of it, despite probably having tens of, if not a couple of hundred journeys out of Tanjong Pagar. I did it once again, since proclaiming that that journey taken with some friends at the end of last year would possibly have been my last. Having had a mixed bag of experiences on the many journeys through the arches of the grand old station, the ones that probably I remember most of are the regular delays that one comes to expect on the far from reliable train service that KTMB operates. Part of the reason for this, some of the archaic infrastructure and practices still in use on the old railway, does perhaps lend itself to an experience that you would certainly not get on the efficient railways that criss-cross much of the European continent – one that seems out of place in the ultra modern and efficient world we have grown accustomed to in Singapore.

I will certainly miss taking train journeys out of Tanjong Pagar ... something that will perhaps motivate me to take a few more over the next few months before the station closes.

Stepping into the station itself would somehow take you back in time, the atmosphere being one which seems more at home in the Singapore of the 1960s and 1970s. The large airy concourse that greets the visitor is adorned with mosaic murals that speak of a style that was prevalent of a time we have left behind and depict scenes from the Malayan peninsula that would have been more common in that era. Over the years that I had have an awareness of the layout of the concourse, nothing much has changed except perhaps that the occupants of some of the spaces, and an invasion of a Tourism Malaysia hut in the middle of it. It is in one of the spaces along the concourse that some nice food can be found and to perhaps add a old world flavour to the station, you would find food vendors that would be more comfortable conversing in Bahasa Melayu, once a common language on the streets.

The sight of the trains at the platforms of Tanjong Pagar will soon be nothing but a fading memory.

Beyond the concourse, the platforms do also take one back in time. With a cafe where one can sit back and enjoy the comings and goings on the tracks as well as on the platforms, over a cup of tea that perhaps one would bear only for the pleasure of what the setting offers. These days with the knowledge that the station would soon hear its last train whistle, one would encounter an army of photographers that sometimes seem to outnumber passengers making their way from the platform. Across on the departure platform, for long missing the Singapore checkpoint staff that had occupied the rooms at the end for some three decades before moving to Woodlands during a time when relations between Singapore and the northern neighbours wasn’t at its best. Somehow, the frenzy that accompanies the checkpoint on the Causeway is also missing from the Malaysian Customs and Immigration counters on the platform.

Last light ... the light is fading on the train station as it will hear its last train whistle by the time the first of July comes around.

Beyond the platforms, the highlight for any train passenger awaits, one that takes one through parts of Singapore that have remained untarnished by the waves of development that has altered the face of much of the island, and it is for this that a train journey through Tanjong Pagar is certainly worth the while. The initial part of the journey through to the Bukit Timah area past the two truss bridges cuts through some parts that might well have remained untouched since the Railway Deviation of 1932 took the railway line through the Ulu Pandan area to Tanjong Pagar. There are huge tracts of greenery, particularly in the Buona Vista / Portsdown and Ulu Pandan areas, much of which are certainly worth keeping – something that the Nature Society of Singapore advocates in their proposal to turn the rail corridor into green corridors. Unfortunately, it does seem like the vultures have started to hover over some of these places based on the Foreign Minister’s mention of plans during the budget debate on 3 Mar 2011. Beyond the station at Bukit Timah, there would also be parts where the original Singapore to Kranji line would have run up to 1932. And it is along these stretch that we see some of the parts of the railway that fascinated me from my early days, including the bridges and the level crossings that we might soon see the last of, as come the first of July, the railway line that we have seen cut through Singapore for a century or so, would see its last train.

Foreign Minister George Yeo on the schedule for the shift of the terminal station from Tanjong Pagar by 1 Jul 2011. Nothing new in the announcement except that some of the development plans for the railway land were mentioned.

The departure platform again. Not having had enough of journeys through Tanjong Pagar, I found myself on the platform taking another journey.

So, there I found myself on a Sunday morning with a few companions, boarding another train, to embark on what is perhaps not a final but one of my last journeys out of the station, taking it all in again. The view from the train pulling out from the sunrise shrouded station was dreamy to say the least, as were the views of the train yard, somehow feeling as if it was a movie of a forgotten time that I was watching. I took it all in … signal poles, distance markers, the green tracts, the Tanglin Halt area which I had been familiar with having spent my earliest days in nearby Commonwealth Crescent, that old station at Bukit Timah, the truss bridges and the level crossings. The train ride went a little too smoothly for it to be one that I was used to, leaving right on time and speeding past the station at Bukit Timah and skipping the ritual of the exchange of the key token. We were to find out why once we got across the Causeway … that I would leave to another post, as I will our destination for the day … this journey certainly won’t be my last and if I do have the time … it would be one of a series of journeys that would be to remember that we once had an old world railway line running through a Singapore that had long left that old world behind.

Pulling out of Tanjong Pagar.

Light Signals ...

Signal pole.

A fading memory ... the view out of the window of a train passing through Kranji area.


To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.






The Malaysian Settlement in Singapore and the memory of Charles Edwin Spooner

20 12 2010

There is an obscure little corner of Singapore which many do not notice, nestled between Kampong Bahru Road and the railway yard that stretches to Keppel Road. Stepping into the area, you could quite easily forget that you are still in Singapore except for the two blocks of flats that resemble our own blocks of public housing built by the HDB in the mid 1970s, as you will be overcome by a feeling of stepping into a different world. It is a different world in many ways, being part of the land which is owned by the Malaysian State Railway, KTMB, and very much a part of the lost world within the KTM Railway Land that with the agreement between the Singapore and Malaysian Governments to redevelop the land in place, that will probably be consumed by modernity which has relentlessly swept across much of the island in the last three decades.

A lost world exists in Kampong Bahru ...

Access to the area is via Spooner Road, a name strange enough to have caught enough of my attention when I was in school to remember that I had a schoolmate (who I wasn’t really close to), who we referred to as ‘Spooner’ (for obvious reasons), who for some reason resided in one of the flats there. The flats of course, sitting on KTM land, belongs to the Railway, as much as the train yard and the Running Bungalow that sits at the entrance to the area on Spooner Road. I am not too certain when the current two blocks of flats were put up. Judging from the style of the blocks, it would have probably been around the mid 1970s, but they were definitely there at the end of the 1970s when I was in school with ‘Spooner’. The Running Bungalow itself was built in the early 1930s, part of the effort that has given us the magnificent Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Railway Deviation of 1932 that provided the Bukit Timah area with some of its distinctive character. Before the current blocks of flats, there had been the Perak and Selangor flats which had served as the quarters of the Railway Workers in Singapore.

Access to the lost world is via Spooner Road, off Kampong Bahru Road.

The Running Bungalow was built in the early 1930s together with the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

A reflection of the Running Bungalow in a puddle of water on Spooner Road.

View of Spooner Road, the Running Bungalow and the KTM Flats.

While the redevelopment of what must be rather valuable land in an area that is on the fringe of the CBD is probably inevitable, I do harbour some hope that the road, Spooner Road, or at least the name of the road is preserved in some way. The road is named after none other than Mr Charles Edwin Spooner, who came over as a State Engineer with the Public Works Department (PWD) in Selangor after a stint with the PWD in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Among the projects that he oversaw and possibly influenced being in charge of the Selangor PWD was the construction of the wondrous and iconic Moorish styled Sultan Abdul Samad building which many now identify Kuala Lumpur with. In 1901, Spooner was appointed as the first General Manager of the FMS Railways (FMSR) and in that capacity oversaw the rapid expansion of the predecessors to what became the Malayan Railway, including the construction of the 120 mile long Johore State Railways linking Gemas to Johor Baharu, and the magnificent station building in Kuala Lumpur, which was completed a year after Spooner’s untimely death in 1909. It was after Mr Spooner, that not only saw a Spooner Road named after him in Singapore, but one associated with the Railways in Kuala Lumpur (I am not sure if this exists anymore) and also in Ipoh (which is now named Jalan Spooner). And it is for all his achievements, spending a better part of his life in the improvement of the colonies both in Ceylon and Malaya that we owe Mr Spooner at least a place in our own history and for our future generations not only to honour the memory of Charles Edwin Spooner, but also to serve as a memory of the Railway line that once ran through Singapore.

Some residents of Spooner Road enjoying the lifestyle I had growing up ....

Another resident of Spooner Road.

The lost world of Spooner Road. There was a Spooner Road in Kuala Lumpur and one in Ipoh (which is now Jalan Spooner) as well.

More views around the flats:

Lifts at the block of flats at Spooner Road.

Enjoying a ride around Spooner Road.

Laundry pole supports...

Window louvres ...

More window louvres ...

The land on which Spooner Road and the building sit are very much Malaysian owned.

More views around the Railway Yard:

Views around the train yard ...

[This post is also featured on Trains and Boats and Planes and One° North Explorers.]


[For more posts related to the Railway Land in Singapore, the Shift of the KTM station from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands, and of Train Journeys on KTM, please click on this link.]






A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: into Malaysia before leaving Singapore

30 11 2010

Whatever our reasons may have been, some friends and I decided to embark on what may be a last journey by train from the station that has served as the southern terminal of the Malayan Railway, Tanjong Pagar Station, for a better part of a century. For some of us bitten by the nostalgia bug brought about by the knowledge that platforms of the station would have fallen silent by the time the second half of 2011 arrives for the grand old station, it was about reliving our fond memories of train journeys that we have taken through the station. For others, it was a maiden journey – one that needed to be taken before the station shuts its doors to train passengers for good, and one that needed to be taken for the romance perhaps of taking a train from a station that is very much from the old world.

The grand old station at Tanjong Pagar had served as the southern terminal of the Malayan Railway since 1932.

This thought of a last journey had come with a walk or discovery and rediscovery down the Bukit Timah railway corridor, and with little planning, a few friends decided on a day trip to Gemas, the significance of Gemas being that of the main railway junction where the lines running north split into eastbound and a westbound lines, a well as being about the furthest that one could go with the time afforded by a day trip. Having purchased tickets well in advance for the travelling party which had grown from a few friends to a party of 13, something that we decided would be best with the start of the peak travel season brought about by the school holidays on both sides of the Causeway, all that was left for us was to board the train when the day arrived.

The platforms at Tanjong Pagar would have fallen silent by the time the second half of 2011 arrives.

Going on what is the first train out to Gemas, the 0800 Ekspress Rakyat, meant an early start on a Sunday morning, having to arrive at half an hour prior to departure to clear Malaysian Immigration and Customs. Arriving at the station with time to spare, we were able to grab a quick bite at the coffee shop by the platform before making our way to the departure gates. At the gates, somewhat surrealistically, the frenzied atmosphere that had greeted my very first train journey was conspicuously absent, replaced by a calm that was certainly more in keeping with the laid back feel of the rest of the surroundings that early morning.

The was definitely a less frenzied atmosphere around the departure gates and platform compared to when I took my very first train journey out of Tanjong Pagar.

What had been up till 31 July 1998, the southernmost exit point from Singapore for journeys across the Causeway, the booths that were used by the Singapore Immigration Department before the big shift to the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex in Woodlands, now sit quietly and forgotten at the entrance to the platform. Beyond the booths lay ones that still had life, used by the Malaysian authorities, who have stubbornly resisted all attempts by the Singapore government to also shift the Malaysian checkpoint to Woodlands – one of what had been the many thorns that had been lodged in the side of bilateral relations between the two countries for a long time. With the Malaysian authorities continuing to operate their checkpoint at the station (claiming that it was well within their rights to do so despite the Singapore government’s insistence that it was illegal to do so on the grounds that whether or not KTM had a lease on the land, the land was still within Singapore’s sovereign territory), the checkpoint that we passed through is possibly the only one in the world that exists where the immigration clearance is carried out by the country into which entry is being made into first. What this also means is that passports are not stamped by the Malaysian side – an irregularity that is tolerated only as a consequence of train passengers leaving Tanjong Pagar station having technically not left Singapore, not having first cleared Singapore Immigration.

The booths that were once used by the Singapore Immigration prior to its shift to the CIQ complex at Woodlands on 1 Aug 1998.

A stamp on the Immigration Departure Card in lieu of one on the passport to indicate entry into Malaysia through Tanjong Pagar Station.

Passing through Malaysian Customs – I was quite relieved not to have encountered a particular Customs officer from the past, one whom most in the know would try to avoid back in the 1990s when every item of baggage would be rummaged through by the over zealous Customs officers stationed at Tanjong Pagar. The officer in question was one that stood out, being the only ethnic Chinese Customs officer amongst the mainly Malay officers, and one who seemed to think that everything that looked expensive or new had to be taxed.

The disused platform adjacent to the departure platform running parallel to Keppel Road.

An old passenger carriage at a disused platform at the station.

Finding myself on the very familiar departure platform after Customs, it somehow seemed a lot quieter than it had been on my previous journeys – perhaps with journeys by train becoming less attractive with Singaporeans heading up north, with the introduction of improved and very comfortable coach services to the major Malaysian towns and cities, which are not just much quicker, but also a cheaper alternative to the train.

The very silent departure platform.

Another view of the rather quiet departure platform.

Boarding the train brought with it familiar sights and smells ....

The train pulls out ... signalling its intent with a whistle and the blare of the horn ...

... as sways and jerks accompanied the first few metres of movement ...

The rustic charm of the train yard just after the station ...

More views around the train yard ...

There was a lot to take in along the way as well: once again, scenes that will be lost once the corridor through which the railway runs is redeveloped. Clearing the relatively built up areas as the train first passed the Bukit Merah and Delta areas, the bit of greenery around the Portsdown area before coming to Queenstown, Tanglin Halt and the Buona Vista areas, we soon found ourselves amidst the lush greenery of the Ulu Pandan area. The train pulled to a stop at Bukit Timah Station, not so much to pick passengers up but to make way for not one but two south bound trains, letting one pass before moving up the nearby railway bridge only to head back down to allow the second to pass. We were able to observe the handing over of the key token – an archaic safety practice where authority to proceed from the station would be “handed-over” by the station master to the train, before continuing on our journey north.

Pulling out through the Bukit Merah area ...

Pulling into Bukit Timah Station ...

Stopping for the first of two passing southbound trains ...

Crossing the truss bridge over Bukit Timah / Dunearn Roads ....

... probably to change tracks for the next passing train ...

Bukit Timah Station.

Signalling the second southbound train ...

Getting ready to hand over the key token ...

Getting ready to hand over the key token ...

Next, the train headed up the Bukit Timah corridor, past the first of the two distinctive truss bridges, through the notorious Rifle Range and Hillview areas before crossing the second of the bridges. Much of the area was certainly familiar from the recent trek some of us made down from the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road, which we in no time passed, crossing three more level crossings through some of the greener parts of the island before reaching Woodlands, where we disembarked to clear Singapore Immigration. Boarding the train, the jam on the Causeway soon greeted us, as well as a hazy and somewhat sleepy view of the Straits of Johore as we crossed the Causeway and rather uneventfully, we were soon at the spanking new Johor Baharu Sentral – just across from the old Johor Baharu Station, from where we would continue on the next part of our journey … northwards through the length State of Johore …

Through the Bukit Timah Corridor near Hillview.

Another view of the Bukit Timah Corridor near Hillview.

Enjoying the scenery of Singapore's nothern countryside near Kranji ... (don't try this at home!).

The sleepy view from the Causeway (looking at Senoko Power Station) of the Straits of Johore.

The water pipelines at the Causeway (supply of water was another thorn in the side of bilateral relations).

Arriving at spanking new JB Sentral ... the gateway to the north...

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The final part of the walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: From the site of the Green Spot to a very green spot …

1 11 2010

Wet and sticky from the exertions of a walk that had started early on a Sunday morning just as an electrical storm was developing, wet from the drenching we got and sticky from the humid air that was heated up by the sun’s appearance in the latter part of the morning, the eight of us started on the last leg of the trek from the site of the huge Green Spot bottle that stood at the entrance of the former Amoy Canning factory that most of those my age would well remember. From there, we trudged along Upper Bukit Timah Road to the entrance to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve on Hindhede Road where we came to a second steel girder bridge.

The narrow span girder bridge at Hindhede Road.

What we noticed of the bridge was that it, being of a much shorter span than the previous one we had encountered at Hillview Road, was supported by only two deep girders – which were quite clearly of riveted construction (rather than of welded construction – a method that is more commonly employed today), which provided some evidence that the girders have not been replaced since the bridge was first erected in 1932.

The bridge is supported by two deep girders which are riveted.

The view on top of the bridge at Hindhede Road.

Leaving the bridge, we decided to give an intended detour to the site of Beauty World a miss, moving on towards Jalan Anak Bukit, where we were greeted by the wonderful sight of the second of two White-Throated Kingfishers that we had seen that morning, perched on an extended branch of a tree over the tracks in the area.

The stretch of the tracks approaching the Anak Bukit area (looking northwards).


The second of two White-Throated Kingfishers that we spotted along the trek.

Taking a walk down down Jalan Anak Bukit, we turned into what must be quite an infamous shortcut across the railway track to Rifle Range Road, where there have been several fatal incidents over the years involving pedestrians taking the shortcut. Somehow, my earlier visit to the shortcut where I had, across a speeding train, caught a glimpse of a woman holding an umbrella on the other side of the track, seemed a lot more eerie than this one – perhaps because of the company I was in. The sight of the woman with the umbrella had brought to mind an incident at the end of the 1970s when an incident had occurred not far from shortcut, in which, a girl, last spotted holding an umbrella, had been run over by a train.

A train carrying bricks passing a popular shortcut from Jalan Anak Bukit to Rifle Range Road. The ghostly figure of the lady with the umbrella brings to mind an incident at the end of the 1970s in which a girl, last seen holding an umbrella, was run over by a train not far from the shortcut.

From the shortcut at Jalan Anak Bukit it was through familiar territory, haveing taken the same walk a few weeks back to rediscover the area around Bukit Timah Station. Taking the short walk down Rifle Range Road, past an abandoned factory building which we couldn’t decide if it might have once been part of the former Yeo Hiap Seng factory complex that stood on the wedge of land between Jalan Anak Bukit, Rifle Range Road and Dunearn Road, we soon came to the second of the two black truss bridges across the Bukit Timah area. From the bridge, it was a short walk to the quaint old Bukit Timah Station – which I have devoted a previous post to, still looking as I would always remember it. The station, we have been given to understand based on the recent Memorandum of Understanding signed between Singapore and Malaysia on the relocation of the Tanjong Pagar railway station to Woodlands by 1 July 2011, and the redevelopment of railway land, could possibly be conserved as well.

The abandoned factory building next to the track between Rifle Range Road and Jalan Anak Bukit.

The view of the railway land from Rifle Range Road.

The southern reach of the railway as seen through the truss bridge over Bukit Timah / Dunearn Roads - part of the deviation in 1932 that gave Singapore the grand old station at Tanjong Pagar.

The black truss bridge over Bukit Timah / Dunearn Roads as seen from Rifle Range Road.

Bukit Timah Station certainly has a rural Malaysian feel about it, surrounded by a sense of calm in very green surroundings.

The quarter kilometre marker at the station - the line will be slightly truncated with the shift of the main station to Woodlands by 1 July 2012.

Manually operated control levers for operation of railway points at Bukit Timah Sation.





The second part of the walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: The mysteries around Hillview

24 10 2010

Leaving the compound of St. Joseph’s Church (Bukit Timah) with the sun peeking through the clouds, after a pause in our trek down Upper Bukit Timah Road, it was a good time to get reacquainted with the railway track side of the road. We crossed the overhead bridge which provided a wonderful vantage point from which I was able to take in the tremendous changes that the area, which lies in the shadow of Singapore’s tallest hill, Bukit Timah Hill, has seen over the three to four decades since I had first become acquainted with it. Somehow, it didn’t seem that long ago when I would view the area from the backseat of my father’s car en route to an adventure across the causeway or on a visit to the orchid nursery in the Teck Whye area which was run by a friend of my mother. There was a time as well – that would have been in the 1980s, when I did pass through the area on my own – on my way to a friend’s place up on Chestnut Drive, when the road was a lot narrower and the area around seemed a lot less built up.

The area where the tracks run opposite St. Joseph's Church.

After another pause at an area by the train tracks, accessible from the main road as what has become a popular short-cut had been trampled through the vegetation from Hillview Avenue, where we were able to have a wonderful view of what we could imagine of as a pass that was carved through a hill and where we were treated to a dash of bright blue in the form of a White-Throated Kingfisher perched on a branch of a tree by the tracks , we made our way south towards a building that had served for many years as a landmark in the area. The building is the Standard Chartered Bank branch building at the entrance to Hillview Road – a building from which I could count the number of bus stops to ensure I stopped at the correct one, on a side of the road that had once been devoid of any form of landmarks to identify where one was – especially in the dark of night. I would be always be reminded by my friend to stop at the second bus stop after seeing “Chartered Bank” – which had stood at the same spot – almost unchanged since it was first opened in April 1957.

A view of the "pass" near Hillview Avenue.

The tracks, looking north, near the shortcut to Hillview Avenue.

The Chartered Bank, a popularly referred to landmark in the area, as it looks today.

The Chartered Bank branch building at Bukit Timah seen at its opening on 6 April 1957 (source: The Free Press, 16 April 1957).

The view from Upper Bukit Timah Road of the entrance to Hillview Road had in itself, always interested me since the days of my backseat adventures. Hillview Road, and Hillview Avenue beyond it was one area that my father never seemed to go through. Looking through the narrow passage under the concrete supports of the railway girder bridge that runs across Hillview Road – always seemed to somehow suggest a sense of mystery of what lay beyond – the rise of the road beyond the bridge obscuring what lay beyond the little that was visible through the passage under the bridge. It was only much later in life that I actually discovered, to a sense of disappointment, what had lay beyond the bridge, on a visit to the Lam Soon Building during the early days of my working life. Later – the road would be one that I would become familiar with, on the many visits made during the course of my work to the installation that stands at the top of Bukit Gombak. By that time of course, much of the area that had in fact been one that was home to many factories in my days of adventure, being where the likes of the Union Carbide and Castrol factories had been located – had been turned into an area where many new sought after private condominiums had sprung up.

The narrow passage under the girder bridge at Hillview Road always seemed to suggest what lay beyond it was a mystery.

On top of the girder bridge at Hillview Road.

The other side of the "pass" near Hillview Avenue.

A scene of what's left of rural Singapore ... found along the railway tracks in the Bukit Timah Corridor - just next to the girder bridge at Hillview Road.

Across the road from the Standard Chartered Bank, I was pleasantly surprised to see a very recognisable distinctive roof structure proudly stood atop a hill – one that I had been familiar with in my days wandering around the area close to St. Joseph’s Institution in Bras Basah Road as a schoolboy there at the end of the 1970s, and one that had hitherto remained unnoticed by me. It is of course the roof of the church that is part of the Trinity Theological College, and is identical to the one on top of the building that was church of the same college, that still stands today – at the original location of the college atop Mount Sophia, next to what had been the Methodist Girls’ School – close by the shortcut I had used to get over to Plaza Singapura as a schoolboy.

The roof of the Trinity Theological College church - identical to its predecessor on the top of Mount Sophia.

The buildings that used to be part of the Trinity Theological College on top of Mount Sophia.

Crossing back to the other side of the road to the Fuyong Estate area where Rail Mall is, we were able to get on the side where the tracks crosses Upper Bukit Timah Road over the first of the two black truss bridges that I have somehow always identified the area with, pausing again for some photographs of the bridge. What is nice about the bridge is the arched pedestrian passageway through the concrete supports of the bridge on the footpath below. Getting a first glimpse of the bridge – I was able to appreciate the beauty of the riveted steel structure that has given the area its distinct flavour for close to eight decades. What I was also able to appreciate was the amount of effort that it would take to maintain the bridge if it was to be conserved once the railway has no use for it when the terminal station is moved from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands – something that perhaps might prove prohibitive in any considerations taken be the authorities for their preservation – something that many of us would like to see.

The Rail Mall is close to the first of the black truss bridges on the southward journey down the Bukit Timah Corridor.

The view of the black truss bridge from the Rail Mall area.

The northbound view of the black truss bridge from the tracks.

The southbound view along the tracks from the black truss bridge.

Another view of the tracks up the black truss bridge.

The arched pedestrian passageway under the bridge.

Further along Upper Bukit Timah Road – we came to the area opposite the Old Ford Factory – I guess we would all be familiar with the factory and its significance in Singapore’s history as this is already very well documented. A lesser known fact about the area is perhaps the existence of a keramat – one that as some believers would have it, had a part to play in the cessation of fighting (prior to the surrender of the British to the Japanese at the Old Ford Factory) during the Second World War. That keramat, the Keramat Habib Syed Ismail, also popularly referred as the Keramat Batu Lapan – a reference to its location at the eight milestone of Bukit Timah Road, had laid in a clearing across the railway tracks, through a path into the seemingly thick vegetation that had existed in the area. The keramat was excavated several years ago and doesn’t exist today. The keramat, one that is of an Indian Muslim saint, was said to have been where Muslims had prayed for an end to hostilities during the Japanese invasion in early 1942 and fighting had as some would have it, stopped miraculously just across the road – making the keramat a highly venerated shrine for many years that followed.

Another view of the black truss bridge ... the bus is heading south towards the area where the old Ford Factory and the site of the former Keramat Batu Lapan is.

The ridge of the hill where the former Ford Factory, which was once an busy assembly plant for Ford Cars, also featured Hume Industries – a steel maker to the north – and it was these greyish structures that would come into sight on the southbound journeys in the backseat before one of my favourite sights along the way would come into view – the huge Green Spot bottle that stood at the entrance to the Amoy Canning Factory which stood next to the Bukit Timah Fire Station, close to what had been a traffic circus. The station was one that was in fact typical of the Fire Stations found in rural Singapore and much of Malaysia in the1960s and 1970s – one that had with it flatted quarters for the firemen and their families. Interestingly – there is also a crest on the station that I noticed passing by – one of the old Coat of Arms of Singapore – similar to the one that can be found atop Mount Emily at the entrance to Mount Emily Park – just next to Mount Sophia. Further along the way – where again private housing now stands across the road opposite the area close to where the entrance to Hindhede Road is – there was another factory on the ridge – one with a logo painted on the wall that was well known to me – from the many ice lollies that I had feasted on as a child, the Magnolia Factory.

The old Singapore Coat of Arms on the former Bukit Timah Fire Station.

Similar to the one that appears at the entrance to Mount Emily Park.

The former firemen's quarters next to the former fire station.

The rest of the trek took us to another another girder bridge, past Jalan Anak Bukit across a notorious shortcut to Rifle Range Road, past the other black truss bridge and onto our end point – Bukit Timah Station – something I guess I would have to find time later to prepare a post on.





A walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: Wandering along the new railway and rediscovering the old

20 10 2010

During much of a rain and lightning interrupted eight kilometre walk with friends from the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road, I was surprised to discover that, despite the high-rises on the horizon and the other signs of modernity that have replaced what was a rural feel of much of Singapore beyond the city limits, I was able to immerse myself in a countryside where time seems to have forgotten. The walk, motivated by the sense of nostalgia for the old railway line which was prompted by the impending shift of the KTM station to Woodlands, allowed us to have a glimpse perhaps of a slice of Singapore that would be forgotten very soon after the last of the trains of the old railway which has been with us since 1903, makes a final stop at Tanjong Pagar sometime before the first of July next year.

Starting point of the walk - the Phoenix LRT Station in the new Singapore that has replaced the countryside of the old.

The walk took us through many of the areas that I have mentioned in another nostalgia related post on the railway, “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar: The Station at Bukit Timah” (also on asia! as “Keeping Track of Time”), allowing me and several others a last look at the stretch of line that is characterised by the two black steel truss bridges that crosses Bukit Timah Road. For me, it was also a chance to revisit the area which I had become familiar with as a young child, and as a consequence, my childhood, having first been acquainted with it staring out of the opened window of my father’s Austin 1100 on the many road trips made through the area.

How the area might have once appeared to me ... a scene from the backseat of a car further south along Upper Bukit Timah Road (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The same general area as it looks today.

The first stop we made, having met at Phoenix LRT station, was the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road. This provided a wonderful opportunity for me to do what as a child I always enjoyed – that is catching the train traversing what must certainly be the last major level crossing in Singapore, a crossing that is today, made across the six lanes of Choa Chu Kang Road. Somehow, watching the trains running across at road level, just in the shadow of a modern elevated urban railway line, the Bukit Panjang Light Rail Transit (LRT) system, seemed surreal … as was the scene around the level crossing. Looking up the tracks on the north bound side of the crossing, it looked as if the tracks were taking a path to an abyss – the abyss being a plot of land that I had once been familiar with from the many occasions that I had walked through it as a shortcut to Woodlands Road from one of the camps I had been at during my National Service – Stagmont Camp. I had on many occasions as well been on training exercises during my stint at the camp which involved walking up and down the areas around the tracks – once leaving a rifle behind in the dark, which I was fortunate enough to find with the help of my army mates, only having discovered my carelessness a few kilometres up the tracks.

The northbound track into the "abyss" that I once was familiar with from my days in National Service.

On the other side of the crossing, a little hut that serves as the control station for the crossing stands – with a little yellow outhouse behind it, as well as a village like house that was perhaps a common sight in the area once, that served as the quarters of the railway staff manning the crossing. The area of the control hut is probably close to the site of Bukit Panjang Station, one of the stations on the original Singapore to Kranji Railway line. Bukit Panjang Station was also one of the main stops along the line after the 1932 Railway Deviation which gave us the grand station at Tanjong Pagar and the two black truss bridges we see in the area. I am not sure when the station stopped functioning or was demolished – but perhaps like the Phoenix that the nearby Phoenix Estate and LRT station is named after, a new Bukit Panjang Station is slowly – but surely, rising out of its ashes nearby – part of the new railway line – the Downtown MRT line, which for a large part, will run parallel to the original railway line which ran from Kranji down via Newton to the original terminal at Tank Road.

The KTM control hut at on the other side of the level crossing.

A scene reminiscent perhaps of the countryside of old.

The KTM staff was kind enough to allow the use of the outhouse ....

The new railway is being built to replace the old ... the Downtown Line is being constructed parallel to the old railway line.

Deciding that it was too dangerous to walk physically along the tracks, not just because of the dangers of walking along or close to the railway track, but also in anticipation of the fury that, the god of thunder, Thor, seemed to want to unleash, we made our southward trek first along Upper Bukit Timah Road. This took us past the Murugan Hill Temple, a relatively recent addition to the area, having moved to its current location in 1992 from its original home in Sungei Tengah where it could trace its history back to a shrine that was put up in 1962. In getting there, we had also walked past a structure that is reminiscent of the very first overhead bridges in Singapore – constructed of steel with open sides – a temporary overhead bridge erected across Upper Bukit Timah Road that has perhaps been recycled from a decommissioned first or second generation overhead bridge.

An overhead bridge reminiscent of the first overhead bridges in Singapore.

The new Murugan Hill Temple which shifted to the Bukit Panjang area from its original home in Sungei Tengah in 1992.

Continuing further south, we had a quick look at the second level crossing in the area – a smaller one with a delightful old wooden gate, and some of the abandoned buildings around before the sheets of rain that accompanied Thor’s fury came down forcing us to take what little shelter the KTM buildings in the area had offered. After a while, with the rain not showing any signs of abating, we decided to cross the road to wait the rain out at a coffee shop and it was probably an hour before we were able to continue with our walk.

A scene from the "countryside" enroute to the level crossing at Gombak Drive.

Parts of Upper Bukit Timah Road still have that old world feel.

More of the old world feel ...

 


The railway building near the level crossing at Gombak Drive where we took shelter from the storm.

Looking north from the level crossing at Gombak Drive.

Further along the route, we walked past the Boys Town complex … this was the destination that, as boys growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, many feared they would end up in for misbehaving – or so many of our parents then had us believe. It was probably a huge misconception that existed then that Boys Town was a correctional facility and a home for delinquent boys – although it did actually house a boys home, as well as a vocational school which did also take in troubled boys as well as orphans, with a view to providing a home as well as an education. The home and vocational school was started in 1948 by the Gabrielite Brothers, a Catholic Missionary group, as the St. Joseph’s Trade School before being renamed as “Boys Town”.

The once feared Boys Town complex ...

Further along the way, we decided to explore the Stations of the Cross at St. Joseph’s Church – probably one of the last remaining village Catholic churches in Singapore – with a cemetery in its yard. The cemetery had once been a shortcut for me – getting from the church to a friend’s house up Chestnut Drive. Back then, the church side of Chestnut Drive had been lined with single storey wooden houses that were rented from the church who owned much of the land around Chestnut Drive. What is unique about the Stations of the Cross is that this is the only Catholic church in Singapore where the stations are located outside the church. The church building in itself is also rather unique – featuring a 33 metre tall pagoda like roof structure that rises above the area rather prominently. The building was completed in 1964 and consecrated by the then Archibishop of Malacca-Singapore, Michael Olcomendy on August 30, 1964, and built to cater for the growing congregation on the site of a previous building that had been built some 110 years prior to that.

The St. Joseph's Church building built in 1964 on Upper Bukit Timah Road features a pagoda style roof that rises some 33 metres.

The original St. Joseph's Church, built 110 years before the structure we see today (source: St. Joseph's Church website http://www.stjoseph-bt.org.sg/St_Joseph_Website/About_Us.html).

The outdoor Stations of the Cross - unique to St. Joseph's Church in Singapore.

Chestnut Drive as it appears today. It used to be lined with houses that were rented from the church.

There are probably not many who know this, but Chestnut Drive was where a temporary Magistrate’s Court was set up in 1967 in the newly built school building that became the Chestnut Drive School. The next part of the walk continued southwards towards the area where the first of the two black truss bridges in the area, as well as the girder bridge that straddles Hillview Road are … which I will continue with in another post.





Crossroads in my journey

18 10 2010

Wandering around the Bukit Panjang area with a group of old friends and some new found ones … I was transported back to a time when I had somehow seen the Bukit Panjang area as a crossroads of sorts. It had in fact, always been one in the physical sense – the former Bukit Panjang roundabout – what is now the junction of Woodlands Road, Upper Bukit Timah Road, Choa Chu Kang Road and Bukit Panjang Road, serving as a major intersection where north or south bound traffic could make a turn towards the rural and industrial areas that lay to the west via the then long and narrow Choa Chu Kang Road. The area was I guess where I had once come to another crossroad in life – one in which seated at the back of a 3-ton truck, I was transported into a journey into the abyss that was Pulau Tekong, first stopping off at Keat Hong Camp off Choa Chu Kang Road to pick up the kit bag that was to accompany me for the next two years of my life.

The intersection of Choa Chu Kang, Woodlands and Upper Bukit Timah Roads had always been a major crosss road ... back when Bukit Panjang Roundabout served the junction. The area which one boasted of a Railway Station has seen a huge transformation and now sees a Light Rail Line running across the old railway.

I had first come to know the area in my childhood on the many journeys through the area on the way to the Causeway when life in the back seat of the car involved taking the scenes that flashed by the opened windows rather than that on the 3 inch screen of a hand held game console. There were also several journeys especially those taken during the lunar New Year holidays on which we would turn off to the west – towards the Teck Whye area where a friend of my mothers ran an orchid nursery on a little road that turned upwards from Choa Chu Kang Road – and it was on those journeys that I first became acquainted with the level crossing just a short distance up the road.

The level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road ... the last major rail level crossing in Singapore.

I am not quite sure how I had developed a fascination for trains –something that might have been fed through the many visits to the Robinson’s toy department which had a wonderful collection of model train sets that I often had my sights on and perhaps having had many encounters with the Hooterville Cannonball on black and white television, while being entertained by the then popular comedy, Petticoat Junction, but having had a fascination for trains – I also found anything else that had to do with trains fascinating – including many of the features seen along the tracks, particularly the few level crossings that I had come across, of which the first was the one on Choa Chu Kang Road.

Could my fascination with trains have been from the diet I had of black and white television in which I had become acquainted with the Hooterville Cannonball in Petticoat Junction? (Source: http://petticoat.topcities.com/hooterville_cannonball.htm)

I am not sure when I had first seen that particular crossing in operation, but it was something that I would look forward to seeing each time we were in the area. It always seemed surreal somehow how traffic would grind to a halt, as the man who manned the crossing, flag in hand, hurried about closing the wooden gates of the crossing, followed by the sight beyond the gate of a train zooming its way across the road …

I had always looked forward to seeing a train zooming past the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road whenever I was in the area ...

The wonderful sight of a train crossing the road ...

Signal flag used at the level crossing.

The crossing had been one that in the later part of my youth, I had left behind me, as school going years intervened and visits to the orchid nursery became less frequent. It was only many years later when I was doing my National Service that I had become reacquainted with the crossing during the four months that I had spent at nearby Stagmont Camp. By that time, much of the area had become unrecognisable and the roundabout had taken a bow. Somehow it did not seem the same – with most of what was around had disappeared, only a few rows of old shop houses along Upper Bukit Timah Road and Woodlands Road had been left behind … one for some reason that I had remembered for a fruit shop that seem to have the juiciest lychees that I had ever seen. I guess with that and perhaps not having had to time to explore much of the area which I had previously been familiar with, I took less of an interest in what was arond – passing at most a cursory glance at the crossing that I once held a fascination for.

The area which I would have used as a shortcut coming down from Stagmont Camp to Woodlands Road ... I crossed the tracks here on many occasions, as well as having been involved in many exercises along this same set of tracks.

The area where Ten Mile Junction is today used to have a row of shop houses as well as the huts of villages behind them and Stagmont Camp.

The new railway is being built to replace the old ... the Downtown Line is being constructed parallel to the old railway line which will be disused after the shift of the KTM station to Woodlands. Bukit Panjang used to also be where a main Railway Station had once been located - now a new Bukit Panjang station for the DOwntown Line will erase any memories we may have of the old Bukit Panjang Station.

With the impending shift of the KTM station in Singapore to Woodlands – we would soon see the last of level crossings such as the one at Choa Chu Kang Road, the last major level crossing that remains in Singapore – there are two other smaller ones that are along the same stretch of the railway line, one at Kranji Road and another at Gombak Drive. There isn’t much time left for me I guess … to relive that childhood fascination I had for them …

Besides the crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road, there are also smaller level crossings at Gombak Drive and Kranji Road.


We will soon see the last of the railway level crossings that had once been a feature of the railway in Singapore.





Journeys through Tanjong Pagar: The Station at Bukit Timah

27 09 2010

My earliest impressions of the Malayan Railway were formed perhaps not so much by the station at Tanjong Pagar, but by the two black steel truss railway bridges that seem to give the area of Bukit Timah that they cross its character. I often passed under the bridges as a child, seated in the backseat of my father’s car on the many trips he took us on to and from the Causeway and to Jurong or to the Teck Whye area to visit a friend of my mother’s who ran an orchid farm there. Each time I passed under, my attention would be drawn to the heavy steel trusses, sometimes hoping that I could see a train traversing one of them. The bridges would serve as a landmark for me on the long road journeys from the Causeway. The stretch from the Causeway down Woodlands and Bukit Timah Roads always seemed endless, particularly having had been seated in the backseat for a large portion of the journey along the winding roads north of the Causeway, taking us past the monosodium glutamate processing ponds close to the Causeway and the Metal Box factory, then Bukit Panjang Circus and Bukit Gombak, and further on past Boys Town before the first of the two black bridges came into view. Seeing the first meant that the long and boring part of the journey would be coming to its end and I could look forward to seeing the Hume Factory, Ford Factory, and Magnolia Dairies on the hill, before the Bukit Timah Fire Station came into sight and with it, the huge Green Spot bottle at the entrance of the Amoy Canning Factory that I would never fail to look out for.

One of the two steel truss bridges that give the Bukit Timah area its distinct character.

Passing under the bridges and catching an occasional glimpse of a train on one of them would also bring with it a desire to make a train journey of my own, something that I only managed to do later in life. When I did finally embark on that very first train journey and on my subsequent journeys, I did find that there was a lot more than the bridges that captivated me. The train rides always provided an opportunity to catch a glimpse of a Singapore that would otherwise remain hidden to me, with the route that the train takes meandering through parts of Singapore that could very well be in another world. Two spots came to my attention on that first ride, having been provided with a good glimpse of from the unscheduled stops that the train made prior to reaching the Causeway. The two were a short distance apart, on either side of the first of the railway bridges that cross Bukit Timah Road, the first being at the Bukit Timah Station just before the bridge, a station that I had hitherto not known about, and the second just after the bridge – at the stretch just behind the Yeo Hiap Seng factory.

A southbound train crossing the bridge near the site of the former Yeo Hiap Seng factory.

The trains to and from Tanjong Pagar take a route through some untouched parts of Singapore.

Having caught a good look at Bukit Timah Station that very first time in the dim illumination it was provided with, I was fascinated, seeking to find out more about it when I got back to Singapore. From what I could see of it, it had looked to me like one of the little rural stations that might have depicted in one of the Ladybird books that I had spent my early years reading, one that could be one used to model a miniature station for one of those model train sets that I had often looked longingly at in the toy department of Robinson’s. It was in future train journeys in the daylight that I would get a better glimpse of it, being something that I would never tire looking out for on all my journeys by train.

Bukit Timah Station is a little known about station in Singapore, off Bukit Timah Road.

Bukit Timah Station could pass off for one of the little stations on a model train set.

The station I was to learn, was built in 1932 as part of a realignment of the original railway line which had run from Woodlands down to its terminal at Tank Road via Newton Circus. The realignment or “deviation” as it was referred to then, was carried out at considerable expense at the end of the 1920s, partly motivated by the need to elevate certain portions of the track as the old line had been prone to being overrun by the frequent floods that afflicted the low lying Bukit Timah corridor the line ran through, and at the same time allowing at the the number of what were considered to be dangerous level crossings to be minimised. The realignment also allowed the construction of a brand new and much grander terminal at Tanjong Pagar, one that could be considered as befitting of its status as the southern terminal of the railway line, and more importantly, as the gateway from the colonies in the Malayan Peninsula to Europe and also to the Far East by sea. Bukit Timah Station was also strategically placed to serve what was to prove to be a very lucrative service – the transport of racehorses to and from the racing circuits on the peninsula and the island, being a stone’s throw from the old Turf Club at Bukit Timah. The deviation of 1932 also gave us the two wonderful bridges that were to lend themselves towards giving the area its distinct flavour.

The distinctive truss bridges over Bukit Timah Road and Bukit Timah Station were completed in 1932 as part of a deviation to the rail line that cost a considerable sum of money.

The road out to Bukit Timah Road from the station ... a route that would have been taken by the many racehorses that were transported on the train to Singapore, bound for the old Turf Club.

A old signboard pointing towards Bukit Timah Station from the main road.

A train passing Bukit Timah Station.

The stretch after crossing the bridge over Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads I had a good view of  through not what one might have called a stop, but a series of stops and starts. That gave me the opportunity to see what had occupied the narrow strip of land wedged between what was the railway track, the old Yeo Hiap Seng factory on one side and Rifle Range Road on the other. The strip was then, packed with some of the last remaining squatters that had survived in the 1990s, something I hadn’t been aware of until I had peered out of the window on that first train journey, right into what were the illuminated dwellings of the squatters which had seemed to be only an arm’s length from me. Much of Singapore had by then been cleared of squatters, most having by the time the 1990s arrived, been resettled in the high rise public housing that marks most of the landscape of what had once been rural Singapore. It was then difficult to evict the squatters with the then poor relations between Singapore and the Malaysian government that had effectively owned the corridor of land that the trains run through.

The bend in the tracks where the Yeo Hiap Seng factory was.

The narrow strips of land along the tracks in the area were occupied by the wooden shacks of squatters living on land belonging to the Malayan Railway.

Corrugated zinc sheets and wooden shacks were once a common sight along much of the railway line.

Another view of the tracks around Rifle Range Road which were once lined with the dwellings of squatters living on the Railway land.

A train carrying bricks passing a popular shortcut from Jalan Anak Bukit to Rifle Range Road, one that would have been used by squatters living in the area.

The shortcut from Jalan Anak Bukit over the tracks to Rifle Range Road.

Looking north from Rifle Range Road ... the train takes a path through much of a Singapore that would otherwise remain unseen.

Looking back, I suppose one of the things that came from having a Malaysian railway line operating through Singapore was that it allowed large tracts of the land along the railway and much of the areas around to remain undeveloped and retain the rustic charm that has been lost in much of our island through the rapid modernisation that has overtaken us since our independence, much of which I guess would soon be consigned to the past with the recent agreement on the land swap and the redevelopment of the Railway land. There isn’t much time left I guess for us to savour the rustic charm of the Railway land and some of the buildings that lay around it. I would certainly like to take a last train journey, to take all this in for one last time and to say a fond farewell to what will soon be lost.


This post is also featured on asia! through asian eyes, an online and mobile platform for Asian bloggers and other writers. asia! offers a place to get a feel for what ordinary Asians are thinking and saying and doing providing a glimpse of the Asia that lies beyond the news headlines.








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