The view across the Tebrau Strait at 7 am on 21 June 2014, as seen from the seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan, an area that hosted a village by the sea , on which the sun has long set.
The view across the Tebrau Strait at 7 am on 21 June 2014, as seen from the seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan, an area that hosted a village by the sea , on which the sun has long set.
Another long exposure. This time to capture the early light over the Straits of Johor through another rain coloured morning, at 6.22 am on 7 June 2014.
Colours of dawn, 6.31 am, 31 May 2014, as seen at the unmanicured beach of Kampong Wak Hassan.
The colours of the dawn, at 6.35 am on 25 May 2014, seen painting the lightening sky over the Johor Strait (or Tebrau Strait). The area by the sea where the former Kampong Wak Hassan had once been, looks east towards the Pasir Gudang area of Johor across the channel, does make it an ideal location to catch the spectacle that often comes with the dawn of the new day.
6.29 am, 10 May 2014, Kampong Wak Hassan.
Photographs taken as the sun set on the Chinese year of the snake on 30 Jan 2014, rising at dawn on 31 Jan 2014 in a golden welcome to the year of the horse.
“It is sad to see that all that remains of it is just a road sign”, sighs Yunos Osman about the village of his birth, where he lived for the first three decades of his life. The sign bears the name ‘Kampong Wak Hassan’, now a 150-metre stretch of road named after the village and except for that there is indeed little to remind us of Yunos’ kampung by the sea.
This kampung was one of several coastal villages situated along a stretch of Singapore’s northern coastline along what is today Sembawang Road and southeast of Tanjong Irau, at the mouth of Sungei Simpang. The oldest of the villages, Kampong Wak Hassan, has a history that goes back to before the 1920s, when it was moved to the area.
The village had its origins in a coconut grove established in 1914 by Wak Hassan bin Ali, who lent his name to the village. Located where Sungei Sembawang had originally spilled into the Johor Strait (just west of what today is Sembawang Shipyard), it was relocated during the construction of the huge British naval base along the northern coastline (the base was to stretch some 6.5 kilometres along the coast from Woodlands to Sembawang).
The village was also the area’s longest surviving one, cleared only at the end of the 1990s. For Yunos, who left it in 1994, and other former residents, the attachment they have to the area is still strong. Many return from time to time to sit by the former village’s sea wall. A narrow strip of public land between the road and the wall serves as a place where bygone days can be relived.
Most of the village’s former residents now live in new kampungs, public housing estates with modern amenities. Another former resident and descendant of the village’s founder, Yazlyn Ishak, enjoys the convenient aspects of her new home. However, despite the conveniences they now enjoy, many would have preferred to not trade the days when the sea was their playground, when they woke to the sight of fishing boats returning to waters coloured by the sunrise, when their doors did not have locks, for the urban world they now live in.
For both Yunos and Yazlyn, who moved to Yishun in 1987, it is the ‘kampung spirit’ that set village life apart from their new environment. Yazlyn’s fondest memories are of the times the village came together during preparations for festive occasions and weddings.
The sea wall, now partially collapsed, is a physical reminder of their former home that both Yunos and Yazlyn hope will remain. The area is currently in the throes of redevelopment and the sea wall is the only remaining physical part of the kampung. On part of the land where the kampung once stood, a luxury residential development has already taken shape.
The sea wall still welcomes visitors very much in the same way as the village it protected once did and also serves to remind us of what walls in villages such as Kampong Wak Hassan were – they offered privacy and protection, but were never a barrier to the development of a community; something we find lacking in the new ‘villages’.
The changes we see taking place around the former Kampong Wak Hassan are perhaps also a reflection of how society has changed. In former times many would have lived by the sea out of necessity because it provided a livelihood. Living by the sea has now become a measure of the material success that the new society so craves.
NB. ‘Kampong’ is the older Malay spelling of ‘kampung’, usage of which has been retained in place names.
This article was published in the September/October 2013 edition of the Friends of the Museums bi-monthly magazine, Passage (see link).
An unusual sight at sunrise at 7.03 am on 18 August 2013 with the clouds parting to leave a clear band of sky at the horizon coloured by the rising sun.
Colours of the new day breaking at 6.51 am on the occasion of independent Singapore’s 48th birthday. Happy National Day Singapore!
The colours of the sunrise seen at 6.47 am from a wild and forgotten shore along which I find quiet moments on many a morning.
Seen against the light of dawn by the Tebrau or Johor Strait is a fence at the beach in Sembawang. More recently erected, it marked, for some reason, a long discarded boundary between what used to be a huge British naval base, vacated in 1971 and the area to its east, once occupied by coastal villages, the last of which was cleared in the later half of the 1990s. The fence came down two weeks ago, coinciding with the completion of “renewal” work at Sembawang Park which was developed at the end of the 1970s on the eastern edge of the former base. For long spared from the huge wave of development that has swept across much of the island of Singapore, the Sembawang area is in the midst of change as new public housing and luxury private residential developments in the area will transform what was an area with a well known laid-back feel and old world charm into another well populated and overly manicured neighbourhood in new Singapore.
While a storm sweeping in at dawn does usually bring with it a muted celebration of the new day, the effort to catch the break of day is sometimes rewarded with a surprise as it was today when the storm clouds parted to reveal a spectacular view of the coloured light of sunrise filtering through the darkness …
The view northwestwards down the Straits of Johor from Kampong Wak Hassan is one which would have once looked across to the part of the strait where the huge naval base which was completed in 1938 by the British. The base which stretched from what is Sembawang Park today all the way along the strait to what today is the west end of Woodlands Waterfront close to the Causeway, was opened up in 1971, allowing public access to what was a restricted area.
The area is one I have had many interactions with since the 1970s. The jetty seen in the photograph, is one I spent many nights at fishing for crabs as was another jetty at the west end of the former base – the then already derelict Ruthenia Oiling Jetty which has since been demolished. The 1970s were interesting times for the area, with the opening up of it allowing some parts of the area to be exploited for non-military use. One use of a small part of the area one was perhaps one we in modern Singapore have largely forgotten, a reminder of a period of South-East Asian history when times were less certain. This particular use will be one of the subjects of an exploration by two popular television personalities for an episode on the Woodlands area of a Chinese TV series, Secrets in the Hood, to be televised on Channel U on 3 September 2013. Do look out for it and other interesting hidden secrets from neighbourhoods across the heartlands of Singapore in the series which will air from 6 August to 13 September 2013 in the 9 to 10 pm slot.
Possibly one of the best places in Singapore to enjoy the rising of the sun is along the northern shoreline just east of Sembawang Park. It is in the area where of the last natural sandy beaches left on the island can be found. Wild and untamed, it is full of character which is no longer found in the manicured seaside parks we now have too many of. The beach, off the former Kampong Wak Hassan, is one I often find myself at, partaking in one of the simple joys that nature brings – the painting of the sky by the colours of the rising sun – made even more of a wonder to behold by the beauty it reveals of a beach that is like none other in Singapore – at least for now. The signs are there that it will not be long before a now all too familiar world descends upon it. Until then, it will be where I will be able to cling on to a little reminder of a past we have otherwise discarded.
7.00 am the sun appears at the horizon
It is in a world by the sea that lies forgotten that I often find myself in silent solitude to celebrate the joy of the morning. Spared from the obsessive desire we in Singapore have to manicure and introduce clutter to our public places, it is a world which connects me with the wonderful memories of childhood holidays by the sea in a gentler Singapore that we long have left behind. I do hope the day when this world is made to catch up with the new is far away, but it probably will be a case that it will come sooner rather than later with developments in the area gaining pace to bring us that promise land some find little promise in. But before that happens, it will serve as an escape from a world it increasing is hard to find an escape from and a world we I can at least feel at home in.
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.
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.
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.
One of the few places in present day Singapore that I am able to find myself at home in is the Sembawang area along the northern coast. It is an area which has in the last two and a half decades, as with much (if not all) of Singapore, undergone a huge transformation and also one that is still being transformed. Despite the transformation – Sembawang now plays host to a new public housing estate, it is still a place in which a Singapore we have forgotten about can still be found – at least for the time being.
Sembawang is one of the last places left in which much of the past remains to be discovered. A past which perhaps with the planned future developments in the area, some for which preparations are already being made, is one which may soon be well forgotten. Best remembered for hosting a huge British naval base which was completed in 1938, Sembawang Shipyard which inherited the former Naval Dockyard in 1968 serves to remind us of that, as does the former Stores Basin, now used as a naval logistics base. It is however in several of the smaller reminders in which the past charms of the area can found in. These include the cluster of colonial bungalows (“black and white houses”) and in what is today Sembawang Park. Sembawang Park and perhaps the coastline east of it is where some of the old world does seem to have been left behind including what may be one of the last stretches of natural beaches in Singapore, the old jetty (sometimes referred to as the “Beaulieu”, prounounced “bew-lee” jetty, or “Mata” jetty), Beaulieu House, and a seawall which once belonged to Kampong Wak Hassan.
Besides traces that is associated with the former naval base, reminders do also exist of the area’s lesser known natural past. The area (as had much of the coastline around it) played host to a swamp. Much had already been cleared when the naval base was built with the course of two rivers around which the marshy ground formed altered. There were, however, remnants of the marshland that remained around an area of what is today the Sembawang River up to the 1980s when it was drained for the development of Sembawang New Town. This lay about a kilometre west of what was then Chong Pang Village, just north of the Ulu Sembawang area (an area of farms and freshwater ponds around where Gambas Avenue is today). It was known then to have been a fertile feeding ground for marsh birds, attracting herons, egrets, sandpipers and storks to it. While the swamps have all since vanished – HDB blocks of flats have risen where the wetlands had once thrived, the is today a canalised Sembawang/Senoko River which on the evidence of what we do see today, does see a return of some of the previously rich bird life. Besides the marsh birds, the area today also sees many other birds. These include common birds such as the yellow-vented bulbul, black naped oriole, pied fantail, ashy tailorbird, green pigeon, starling, Asian koel, several types of kingfisher, munia and sunbird. There have also been some less common sightings in the area including the Sunda woodpecker, brown hawk owl, milky stork, and what is perhaps an escapee, a white-rumped shama.
Sembawang is toady, a world in which the charm of a forgotten old world missing from most of the redeveloped spaces on the island, can still be found. It is a world which has thus far, managed to remain free from the crowds and clutter which now seems to dominate almost all of the urban world we now find around us. The area is one which had for a long while boasted of welcome pockets of greenery and un-manicured beauty. But all that I fear, is soon going to change. Sembawang Park for one is already in the midst of a “renewal” which I feel will see it lose the character and charm which attracted me there since the days of my childhood as it becomes just another well manicured park cluttered with paraphernalia which Singapore really has too many of.
As I look around me, I also see huge tracts of land which were once held much beauty behind hoardings and in the midst of being cleared. That I understand is part of the effort to provide new homes. What that also means is that the crowds the area has hitherto been spared from would soon descend on it, attracted not just by the homes, but the inevitable as it now seems – a huge redevelopment effort which has been outlined in the recently released Land Use Plan intended to supplement the somewhat controversial Population White Paper. That speaks of “new waterfront land along the Sembawang Coastline being freed up once existing shipyard facilities are phased out” with the aim “of providing land for new business activities”. With that it will not just be the character and charm of the area that will be lost, but what it does also mean is that it will see the breaking of what may be the last links it has with its past.
Inevitable as it may seem, that future is one that I hope, perhaps for selfish reasons, is one that will never come. Development which has broken many of our links to our past as well as the more recent wave of immigration has without a doubt provided great economic benefit to us living in Singapore. For many of us however, it has also come at a huge cost, a cost which has also seen us lose the soul of who we are as a people. The country is today, one where I find it a struggle to feel at home in. Much of what once was familiar and a source of joy and comfort is no longer with us, creating in us that sense of longing for what has been lost, as well as a sense of loss … a feeling which perhaps can best be described by the Welsh word Hiraeth or the Portuguese word Saudade.
One of the positive things that did come out of the land use plan is that it makes mention of some of the more immediate future developments to provide public housing at Bidadari, Tengah and Tampines North. What that does mean is that for the time being at least, the large parcel of land reserved for the future Simpang New Town, an area by the northern coast part of which was once a land of idyllic coastal villages and prawn farming ponds will be left undeveloped. What that also means is that while the area will certainly become more crowded over time, it will for a while, be spared from an even bigger one, remaining as a final frontier where not just the birds, but also free spirits such as myself can still find space to roam free.