The last rubber tree

17 04 2014

It is in a part of Singapore struggling to hold on to times the modern world has discarded that we find a remnant of forgotten days – a tree, said to be the last of the rubber trees, which is one of what were many more on the huge Bukit Sembawang plantation that had once dominated the area.

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There is much mystery that surrounds the tree, which towers over a mosque, described as be the “last kampung mosque in Singapore” - itself a remnant of a forgotten world. The 60 to 70-year-old tree is believed to have resisted all attempts to have it cut down – it is said that those who have attempted to cut it down had been struck ill in a fashion similar to many other trees found across the island that are believed to be inhabited by spirits.

On this, another story from the area does come to mind. The story is one that takes us back to the days when the huge King George IV graving dock  was being constructed – one that also involved a rubber tree that needed to be cleared to level the ground to build the dock. Workers had feared chopping the tree down for similar reasons, resulting in a delay in the construction. That tree did eventually get removed and act that was thought to be responsible for the deaths of several people involved in its removal that were to follow. More on this story can be found in a previous post, Last Post Standing.

Like the mosque beside it – which operates on a Temporary Occupation License, the tree is on State land and does face an uncertain future. While the area close to the mosque has so far been spared from development, the redevelopment of the area does seem to be gaining momentum. Not far away, we already see an area that once belonged to those who lived off the sea, given to those who in modern Singapore, are can pay the price it costs now to afford the luxury of living by the sea. It does seem to only be a matter of time before the brave new world does arrive in the area. Until then, we do for now, have the story of the tree to listen to, as well as the wealth of stories of times past that will be lost when the new world does eventually arrive.





A sunrise over the lost country estate

10 04 2014

6.57 am, 3 April 2014, the colours of the new day, as was seen from Mount Rosie Road, close to it junction with Chancery Lane. It was in this vicinity that what must have been a very grand wooden bungalow from which the area got its name, Mount Rosie, had once stood as the centrepiece of a vast country estate.

Mount Rosie Sunrise

Built in the 1880s as the residence of Mr. Theodore Heinrich Sohst, a German trader who once served as the Acting German Consul to Singapore as well as the Honorary President of the Teutonia Club, the bungalow, as was the country estate it stood as the centrepiece of, was named after Mrs Sohst, Rosie de Souza who was of Eurasian heritage and whom he married in 1868.

The grand residence, described as a “princely establishment”, was built to be spacious and airy with generously large verandahs arranged around it, in the fashion of the stately homes of the well-heeled that did come up in the early days of Singapore. It had a magnificent position from which it commanded a view of the expansive estate, having been placed “on top of a hill with a fine stretch of open country around it”, and it must have been been a sight to behold, a focal point not just of the estate, but also of social life as it had been known to be.

Coming ashore in 1865, Mr. Sohst’s career here spanned a significant proportion of the history of the trading firm, Puttfarcken, Rheiner and Company, having arrived just seven years after it was established, serving as its Managing Partner at the time of its liquidation in 1906 when it had been renamed Puttfarcken and Company.

With the passing of Mr Sohst in January 1912, there were to be several more occupants of the bungalow. One was a Mr. Frank Adam, the General Manager of the Straits Trading Company, before it was first leased, from the early 1920s to the War Office, reportedly at a large cost. This was for use as a temporary residence of the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Malaya and it was during this time that Mount Rosie was renamed as Flagstaff House, in 1925.

With the completion of a purpose built Flagstaff House in 1938 (now Command House), the bungalow passed into the hands of Raffles College. As Mount Rosie Hostel, it was used as to house female students at the college (and later the University of Malaya) until 1958. It was used temporarily as a home for old folks after this, when a place was needed to house residents of Nantina Home in Queen Street, when that was closed in 1959.

A view of what Mount Rosie did look like can be found in this article, $100,000 House for Malays’s G.O.C., in the 14 March 1937 edition of The Straits Times.





Singapore Landscapes: A pathway to the divine

9 04 2014

It is a magical pathway on which one makes a journey in the search of the divine, the lost and almost forgotten Divine Bridge. The pathway that leads up to the area where the bridge once stood, traces a route by the water’s edge at MacRitchie Reservoir, and in doing so, passes through an area that offers some of the prettiest views of water, trees and space that Singapore does have. Part of the landscape is dominated by the manicured greens of one of the golf courses at what is the Bukit location of the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC). It is at this location, where the SICC will return one of the two courses it operates to the government for use as a public course in 2021 when its lease expires. A paved public walkway now runs by the course close to the water’s edge, leading up to the area where what does remain of the Divine Bridge, the wooden stumps that were once part of the columns supporting the bridge, can be seen.

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Lost places: The shrine across the Divine Bridge

7 04 2014

The Japanese couldn’t have picked a more divine setting in Singapore for the Syonan Jinja (昭南神社), the Light of the South Shrine that was to be the grandest of Shinto shirnes erected in the southern reaches of the empire. Even today, despite its site having been reclaimed by the forest , it is not difficult to find the beauty and peace the site was chosen for, in an area that even today does seem far removed from the urban world.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia's  leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia’s leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

The shrine, built with labour provided by the Allied prisoners-of-war (POW), was one of several that came up in Singapore during the Japanese occupation. One of two of the more notable shrines – another was the Syonan Chureito on Bukit Batok, the Syonan Jinja stood on a slope of a hill that rose from the water’s edge around the western reaches of MacRitchie Reservoir, across a what from the evidence presented in photographs of it, was a beautifully crafted bridge, known as the Divine Bridge.

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja seen in 1943 (Showa History Vol. 10: Pacific War Breaks Out、Mainichi Newspapers Company, uploaded to http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja as seen in 1943 with the Divine Bridge in the background (source: Mainichi Newspapers Company, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The shrine and its site and the grand plans for it, which was opened to commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Singapore in 1943, have been described in the National Library’s infopedia page on the shrine:

a beautiful wooden structure that featured the clean, simple lines of classic Japanese architecture. It was built on a raised stone platform and it had a large granite ceremonial fountain for ritual purification. The surrounding area was designed to be a Japanese garden with gentle pebbled streams, stone lanterns, a stone-stepped path, small torii gates (traditional Japanese gates commonly found at the entrance of Shinto shrines), and landscaping featuring native and imported plants. Four to five tonnes of pebbles were imported from Borneo for this project, while religious artifacts and certain plants were sourced from Japan. The wood used for the shrine, however, was from Singapore”

The area around the shrine was to be transformed into a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities. These facilities were to include gardens, promenades, playgrounds and a lake for fishing and boating. The proposed sports compound was to feature a stadium, a swimming pool, wrestling arenas and public bandstands, and would be a possible venue for the Greater East Asiatic Olympic Games envisioned by the Japanese. The planners also declared that a new city would develop with the Syonan Jinja at its centre

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

What remains of the Divine Bridge today - wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

What remains of the Divine Bridge today – wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

Little today is left for us to see of what it might once have been - wooden stumps, only visible when the reservoir’s water levels are low enough, tell of of the location of the Divine Bridge and where the Torii gate and the stairway up to the shrine would have been. Across the reservoir, it is through the thick undergrowth of the secondary forest that has reclaimed the area, that one finds the flight of stairs, rising first to a terrace on which a water trough hewn out of a block of granite still stands. The trough would have served to hold water for the ritual purification asked of visitors to the shrine.

A concrete retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A panorama of the site.

A panorama of the site (click to enlarge).

Beyond the trough, the stairway leads to another platform – the main site of the shrine and except for a few slabs of stone lying around and the platform itself, there is little but that sense of an uneasy calm that one does feel at the site of the shrine, which was destroyed before the Japanese surrender to prevent it from being desecrated.

Concrete slabs at the site.

Granite slabs at the site.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

Some of what we do know of what did go on at the shrine, comes through the accounts of local residents who participated in some of the rituals that did go on. One practice that did get mentioned is that of the Japanese community’s visits first to the Syonan Jinja to participate in Shinto rites early in the morning on New Year’s Day, before they made their way to the Syonan Chureito to pay respects to the war dead, an observance that also involved employees of the Japanese and would be followed by a lavish lunch (see “The Last Days of the Japanese Occupation”, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 1976).

More stone slabs.

More stone slabs.

One of the things about the shrine does does come out in some of the accounts is of the pebbled streams in what must have been a beautifully landscaped area. The pebbles, ” four, five tons” of them, as is described in one account, were apparently ones that had been had been brought in from Borneo for the Bukit Timah rapid gravity filter beds that were being constructed.

A close up of the foundations.

A close up of the foundations.

A view of the stairway.

A view of the stairway.

The site does attract a fair amount of interest despite it being rather difficult to access. It has been designated as a Historic Site since September 2002 and a marker / information plaque on it can be found at the junction of Sime and Adam Roads – from which it is an over 2 kilometre walk that does take one through parts of the gravel paths in the MacRitchie forest, as well as along the water’s edge past what is some of the most picturesque landscapes to be found in Singapore.and for that alone, it is well worth the effort involved.

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).





Last impressions

4 03 2014

Time can be a cruel thing in Singapore. The passage of time brings with it the change that seems inevitable in Singapore denying us many places that we may have developed an attachment to.

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The last day of February this year, saw the passing of two well-loved places. One is a kopitiam (coffee-shop), set in an world older than itself for which time is being called on, and the other, a well used community space in the form of a public swimming pool complex we in Singapore seem to want to discard all to quickly.

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Just a stone’s throw away from each other, the two, are coincidentally from the same era. While this may be hard to see in the swimming complex, the Buona Vista Swimming Complex, the layout of the kopitiam, Chin Hin Eating House at Block 75 Commonwealth Drive, does take us back to the period when it was set-up in 1976 – when it was still the fashion to lay food stalls at the coffee-shop’s front, with a seating area in the back. A popular place for that traditional breakfast of buttered bread, soft-boiled eggs and coffee, the coffee-shop was located on the ground floor of a block of flats that will be a group of seven – among the earliest put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the early 1960s, that will be demolished under the HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

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The swimming complex, which opened in September 1976 and the fourth to be designed by the Housing and Development Board (the others before it were Queenstown, Toa Payoh and Katong), is one that I do have a memory of. It was where on one evening in the complex’s first decade of operation, despite losing my glasses in any attempt to “rescue” a “swimmer in distress”, I managed to get my bronze medallion in life-saving that qualified me as a lifeguard. That was some 30 years ago in 1983, and probably some 30 kilogrammes ago in weight I have since seemed to have gained.

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While there is little I have in terms of sentimentality for the places concerned, they are still places for which I do feel a sense of loss, being reminders of unassuming times for which there is little place in the world we have been forced to love. There may be little time left for us to celebrate these remnants of the old world in which we find easy to feel at home in, before they become a remnant only in our memories.


A last waltz

- a final dance at Chin Hin Eating House (1976 to 2014) -

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La última Vista

- a final look at Buona Vista Swimming Complex (4 Sep 1976 to 28 Feb 2014) -

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A search for a lost countryside

27 02 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A link with the area's heritage.

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

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

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

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

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

The road to the former residence.

The road to the former residence.

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

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

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

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

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The surviving well of the spring.

The surviving well of the spring.

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

Collecting water at the hot springs.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It now is a wooded area awaiting future development.

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

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

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





The Gateway into the Lost World

25 02 2014

It is in a deserted and somewhat forgotten corner of Singapore, that you will find the Gateway into the Lost World. It stands alone – the space to which it opens into is one that nature has reclaimed, giving little away as to what it might once have been.

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Once surrounded by a world we now have sought to forget, that of a village of wooden dwellings that was serenaded by the songs of the nearby sea, the gateway stands all alone except for the mosque that does remind us of what might once have been.

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In surroundings that does take one well away from the madness of the urban world, it probably isn’t hard to imagine what might once have been – a space in which the joy and peace of  waking to the smell of the sea would quite easily be found. It also isn’t difficult to imagine it as a place that would have inspired one who lived there to paint, as a talented architect who I suspect did live in a house beyond the now lonesome gates (word is that the gateway was to a house in which an architect of European origin lived), did –  producing more than 50 seascapes with watercolours that were the subject of an exhibition at the Lone Pine Gallery at Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Parade Hotel) in 1986.

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The architect, James Westwater Ferrie who started a well known local architectural firm James Ferrie and Partners, arrived in Singapore from the UK in 1948. Having described himself in an interview about the exhibition that was published in 27 January 1986 edition of The Straits Times, as having “always like the sea” and being “closely associated with water”, he was I an avid sailor who sought also to live by the sea. He also offered a brief description of where he had lived: “in Sembawang with a garden stretching down to the sea” in explaining that the focus of his paintings was on “the skies and boats” where he lived. 

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Ferrie passed away in the UK in February 1993, and it would only be in his paintings, that the memory of the world around him in Sembawang is preserved, with the boats he sought to depict having long disappeared along with the villagers the boats belong to. The area however does remain a place to seek that peace Ferrie would have sought in building his home by the sea, having been spared thus far from the sea of concrete that is fast spreading through what once might have been an island in the sun. It may however not be long before the sound of a silence that now complements the songs of the sea will, as with the world the gateway did lead to, be a thing we would only be able to imagine as the relentless march of concrete does seem now to be very close to its doorstep.

The nearby mosque in the woods (Masjid Petempatan Melayu).

The nearby mosque in the woods (Masjid Petempatan Melayu).

The greenery that now surrounds the area.

The greenery that now surrounds the area.





The lost world

10 02 2014

With several friends that included some from the Nature Society (Singapore), I ventured into a lost world, one in which time and the urban world that surrounds us in Singapore seems to have well behind. The lost world, where the sounds are those of birds and the rustle of leaves, is one that does, strange as it might seem, have a connection with the success of the new Singapore.

A gateway into a lost world.

A gateway into a lost world.

A winged inhabitant of the lost world.

A winged inhabitant of the lost world.

Part of a stretch of the Jurong Railway Line that was laid in 1965 (it was only fully operational in March 1966), an effort that was undertaken by the Economic Development Board (EDB) to serve the ambitious industrial developments in the undeveloped west that became Jurong Industrial Estate, it last saw use in the early 1990s by which time the use of the efficient road transportation network in place on the island would have made more sense. The line, including this stretch, has since been abandoned, much of it lying largely forgotten.

Colours of the lost world.

Colours of the lost world.

More colours of the lost world.

More colours of the lost world.

Interesting, while much evidence of the main railway line that ran from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands up to the end of June 2011 has disappeared,  and beyond the two very visible bridges in the Clementi area, there are portions of the Jurong line that does lie largely intact. Although largely reclaimed by nature, it is in this lost world, where some of the lost railway line’s paraphernalia does still lie in evidence. This includes a tunnel - one of five tunnels that were built along the line that branched-off just south of Bukit Timah Railway Station that was built at a cost of some S$100,000. Work on the tunnel, which was to take trains (running on a single track) under Clementi Road, took some two months to complete with work starting on it some time at the end of 1964 – close to 50 years ago.

A view through the former railway tunnel under Clementi Road.

A view through the former railway tunnel under Clementi Road.

A light at the end of the tunnel.

A light at the end of the tunnel.

Waterlogged tracks leading to the tunnel.

Waterlogged tracks leading to the tunnel.

Along the abandoned railway track now reclaimed by nature.

Along the abandoned railway track now reclaimed by nature.

The tunnel, now lying forgotten, is not anymore that gateway to a future that might have been hard to imagine when it was built, but to a Singapore we in the modern world now find hard to recall. It is a world in which the joy not just of discovery but one of nature’s recovery does await those willing to seek out the simple pleasures it offers. Now incorporated as part of the former rail corridor that will see its preservation in now unknown ways as a green corridor, it is one where the madding world we live in can very quickly be left behind. It is my wish that whatever the future does hold for the rail corridor as a meaningful space for the community, the pockets of wooded areas such as this lost world, does remain ones in which we can still lose ourselves in.

A view inside the tunnel.

A view inside the tunnel.

A non-native cockatoo - the area now plays host to nesting cockatoos.

A non-native cockatoo – the area now plays host to nesting cockatoos.

More photographs of the lost world:

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A granite rock face along the cut - part of the cut had made by blasted through granite rocks in the area.

A granite rock face along the cut – part of the cut had made by blasted through granite rocks in the area.

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Retracing the “Ice Ball” Trail

22 01 2014
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo who takes us on a walk back 50 years in time on the ice-ball trail to his kampung at Jalan Hock Chye

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Your whole life flashes in front of you when you experience a near death moment. Memories come flashing back. Memories of all the good times and bad – and times that one had forgotten or chose to forget come back vividly. Having been in that position almost two years ago there is one strange memory that strangely stood out in my mind and often came back to me after that.

It takes me back fifty or more years ago when I was in primary school at the then Holy Innocents School (which later became Montfort School). Those were the days when the Ponggol Bus Company or aka the “Yellow Bus” Company serviced routes in the Serangoon and Ponggol District. My generation of users of this service would remember the wooden louver windows these buses had in those early days!

Well, the average daily “pocket money” for school kids our age then was 30 cents. 10 cents for bus fare to and from school, 10 cents for a plate of Char Kuay Teow or Mee Siam etc, 5 cents for a drink and 5 cents for Kachang Puteh or sweets.

On certain days after our morning school sessions when the urge for a “cool” after-school treat was high a group of us, living close to each other, would decide that if we walked home we could use the 5 cents saved to buy the refreshing “ice ball” – shaved ice shaped into a ball (like a snowball) and sweeten with various coloured sweeteners and a dash of evaporated milk. This was handmade and looking back was pretty unhygienic but it was a special treat for most of us to quench our thirst.

Well the walk from our school, which was next to the Church of the Nativity, back to our homes in Jalan Hock Chye, off Tampines Road, covered a distance of about a mile. We were usually hot, sweaty and thirsty by the time we reach the “kaka” (Muslim Indian) shop that sold iceballs. However walking the last few yards home sucking on an iceball was simply “heavenly” then.

I was in Singapore recently and a strange urge came over me – I wanted to walk the iceball trail again! (I did not think it was the progression of a second childhood coming on).

Well on 10th August 2012 I and my wife caught a bus from Upper Thompson Road to Houggang Central to do the trail. Sadly my old school is no more there but the Church of the Nativity is still there and that was my starting point. With camera in hand I recaptured memories of various roads and lorongs that were landmarks then. Fifty years has seen lots of improvement on what was then on a whole a rural environment. Some lanes like St Joseph’s Lane have gone but it was nostalgic to recap what was and still is present. Very few landmarks of old remain. I knew we were getting close to our destination on approaching Lim Ah Pin Road. By then we were thirsty and welcomed a cool soya bean drink at a shop opposite Lim Ah Pin Road before heading for Kovan MRT station. This station used to be the terminus for the STC bus company that ran services into town and other parts of the island in those days.

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Sadly too Jalan Hock Chye is no more around, being replaced by Hougang Avenue 1. However other landmarks are still there to pinpoint precisely where we used to get our iceballs. The Kaka shop used to be directly in front of the start of Jalan Teliti which is still there; and where my old home used to be is where Block 230 now stands and diagonally across there was a small lane that is now the present Jalan Hock Chye.

Well fifty years on I am glad I still could do the ice ball trail again and to all the old Monfortians who did the walk with me then – life was very simple then but very much cherished. However no ice ball for me at the end of the walk this time – had to settle for an ice kachang as a substitute!

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Words and images by Edmund Arozoo, who now resides in Australia and whom I had the pleasure to meet last December.






Surviving the tidal wave of development

24 12 2013

Among the many highlights at the URA’s Draft Master Plan 2013 exhibition at the URA Centre (which has been extended to 17 January 2014), is one which relates to the house over a beautiful house over sea in the beautiful and undisturbed world at Lim Chu Kang. Referred to as Cashin House and also known as “The Pier”, I had a chance to see the place, a former home of the late Howard Cashin, back in 2011. It is a house that is said to have played host to teatime visits from the Sultan of Johor and a place in which one is taken back to days of leisure by the sea in times we have well forgotten. It is nice to see that the life of the house, and its rustic surroundings, are being extended and not built around – as too many conserved buildings have unfortunately been. It will be a western gateway to what will be an expanded Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve that will link pockets, such as the Lim Chu Kang East mangroves adjacent to the Cashin House, up, along what is a mangrove dominated northwest coast with the first phase of the reserve east of the Cashin House.

The Pier (Draft Master Plan 2013)

More on the Cashin House can be found in a previous post: A lost world in Lim Chu Kang.

The Pier.

A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang.





A vestige of 16th Century Singapura?

1 12 2013

Ravaged by the passage of time and probably neglect, a structure which harks back seemingly to the days of empire and dominion, sits somewhat obscurely and well forgotten on the southern slope of Bukit Purmei in Kampong Bahru. Dominated by the emblems near it of a Singapore that spares little thought for such vestiges of its past, the structure, a walled compound, with an entrance archway suggesting a European origin, hides a world that has much to do with the days of empire that is anything but European.

The well hidden reminder of a past we have long discarded.

The well hidden reminder of a past we have long discarded.

The walled compound, referred to in the past as Keramat Bukit Kasita, is well hidden from view. Located on what can probably be described as a short spur on the Bukit Purmei slope, it sits on the edge of a public housing estate, behind a disarray of zinc topped shacks. A narrow path leads through the shacks – home to the guardians of the compound, who perhaps are also the keepers of a past which  would otherwise have been discarded; rising up to where the archway is. Beyond the locked gates – a more recent addition to the archway, it is the unmistakeable sight of Malay graves – many have its headstones covered in the yellow cloth that is associated with Malay royalty, that greets the eye. There are also several on which green cloth is wrapped over – green being the colour of Islam.

The concrete jungle Keramat Bukit Kasita now finds itself in. The blocks of flats painted in light blue and white are of Bukit Purmei.

The concrete jungle Keramat Bukit Kasita now finds itself in. The blocks of flats painted in light blue and white are of Bukit Purmei.

One of the keepers of the tombs, a rather chatty lady who identified herself as “Umi”, tells the group of us standing by the archway that the tombs are those of the Riau-Lingga branch of the Johor Royal family, hence the yellow cloth and the name Tanah Kubor diRaja by which the site is also known as. The earliest grave there she says, is one which dates back to 1721. She also made mention of a “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, buried at the site, about which I was rather puzzled as I was intrigued. 

A look into the compound from the back of it.

A look into the compound from the back of it.

“Wouldn’t Sultan Iskandar Shah be buried in Melaka” I ask. Umi tells me there might have been more than one “Iskandar Shah”, as names are often recycled down the line.

A Berita Minggu article from Nov 1998 tells us of a notice which identifies the tomb of a "Sultan Iskandar Shah" under an awning.

A Berita Minggu article from Nov 1998 tells us of a notice which identifies the tomb of a “Sultan Iskandar Shah” under in a yellow shed.

Interestingly a Berita Minggu article published on 29 November 1998 also makes mention of “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, drawing reference to a notice put up at the site on which the words “terdapat sebuah makam seorang sultan, Almahurum Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, di pondok tuning itu“, which translates into “there is a tomb of a sultan, the late Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, in the yellow shed”.

A zinc topped dwelling, one which hides the walled compound from view.

A zinc topped dwelling, one which hides the walled compound from view.

The article which is written based on an interview the newspaper did with a previous keeper of the tombs, an En. Azmi Saipan, also mentions that this “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, was thought to have died some 400 years previously – placing him in the 16th Century, well after the passing of the Iskandar Shah, the last king of Sang Nila Utama’s Singapura and the founder of Melaka, that we know well from our history texts.

What greets the eye at the bottom of the spur.

What greets the eye at the bottom of the spur – used as a barber shop until very recently.

There is a suggestion that is offered by a Radin Mas heritage guide which is put together by the Radin Mas Citizens’s Consultative Community, that the burial site was set up in 1530 by Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II – who established the Johor Sultanate out of the ruins of the Melaka Sultanate which was deposed through the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in the early 16th Century. Whether or not Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II who ruled from 1528 to 1564 could be that “Sultan Iskandar Shah” the keepers speak of isn’t certain, although the association remains a possibility. This does also does date the burial grounds some two hundred years before the “oldest grave” which Umi made a mention of.

The grounds of the former De La Salle School which opened in 1952 are right next to the keramat.

The grounds of the former De La Salle School which opened in 1952 are right next to the keramat.

We also learn from Umi that she was from a family of caretakers appointed by a member of the Johor Royal family to take care of the Istana Woodneuk and the grounds of the former Istana Tyersall until some 15 years ago, before being asked by a “Tunku” to move to Bukit Purmei to look after the Bukit Kasita site, which she says is still in the hands of the State of Johor. A check on the Singapore Land Authority’s one map site shows however that Bukit Kasita is within a parcel of land which is owned by the Housing and Development Board – although I am given to understand that it is possible that the site itself could still be owned by the Johor State.

Query on ownership of land on which Keramat Bukit Kasita is on via SLA's One Map site.

Query on ownership of land on which Keramat Bukit Kasita is on via SLA’s One Map site.

While it is uncertain what origins of the site are, we do know that there is at least the graves of a branch of the Johor Royal line all of which can be traced back to Sang Nila Utama and his successors who ruled Singapura and subsequently the Sultanate of Melaka, is can be found behind the walls. This branch, are the descendants of the rulers of the Riau-Lingga Sultanate which was set up by the Dutch out of the remnants of the Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate they controlled through the appointment of the Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah the younger son of Sultan Mahmud Shah III following his death in 1812 and cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

The locked gates.

The locked gates.

It was Abdul Rahman’s elder half brother, Hussein who was set up by Raffles as Sultan of Johor and Singapore, in Kampong Glam – Hussein’s descendants are buried in another site at the Old Malay Cemetery in Jalan Kubor.

The 'Tomb of Malayan Princes'.

The ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’ at Jalan Kubor.

The Riau Sultanate was abolished when the Dutch drove an uncooperative Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the great-great-grandson of Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah through his great-granddaughter Tengku Fatimah, from his seat in Pulau Penyengat into exile in Singapore in 1911. Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the very last Sultan of Riau-Lingga, died a poor man in 1930 and along with several of his descendants, is buried at Bukit Kasita. This does make the cluster, one of three connected, albeit distantly, with the Johor Royal family.

Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the last sultan of Riau-Lingga who died in exile in Singapore in 1930 (source: www.royalark.net).

The other two are the Tanah Kubor Temenggong at Telok Blangah where the Temenggong with whom Raffles negotiated with in setting up the East India Company’s trading post in Singapore, and  from whom the current line of Johor Sultans descended,  Temenggong Abdul Rahman is buried; and the Old Malay Cemetery at Kampong Glam, where the “Tombs of Malayan Princes” – many of whom were descendants of Sultan Hussein, is found. Tanah Kubor Temenggong along with the Masjid Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim are on land owned by the State of Johor. The tomb of Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim after whom the mosque is named is also found in that burial site. It was Temmenggong Deang Ibrahim’s son, Abu Bakar, who established the current Johor Sultanate.

Another view of the Tanah Kubor diRaja / Keramat Bukit Kasita.

Another view of the Tanah Kubor diRaja / Keramat Bukit Kasita.

It is thought that the area where Bukit Kasita is, was where one of the oldest settlements in Singapore was established well before the arrival of Raffles and the resettlement of the Temenggong and his followers by Raffles to the Telok Blangah area. It might have been Abu Bakar as Temenggong who permitted the establishment of a settlement by followers of the ousted last Bendahara of Johor in Pahang Tun Mutahir in 1863, many of whom fled to Singapore and Johor at the end of the Pahang Civil War of 1857 to 1863. Tun Mutahir was defeated by the Bendahara’s younger half brother Tun Ahmad who established the Pahang Sultanate.  The settlement came to be known as Kampong Pahang – which is shown in a map of Singapore from 1907, one of several villages of the same name set up by fleeing followers of Tun Mutahir, another of which was on Pulau Tekong.

Detail of a 1907 map of Singapore showing Kampong Pahang at Bukit Purmei / Bukit Kasita.

Detail of a 1907 map of Singapore showing Kampong Pahang at Bukit Purmei / Bukit Kasita.

As to how the Bukit Kasita site came to be venerated as a keramat, a clue is found in a paper published in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 2003 by P.J. Rivers. Rivers identifies two graves which are venerated as keramats, one is of a Raja Ahmad which Rivers identifies as Keramat Bukit Kasita. The second grave is that of a Raja Tengku Fatimah which is venerated on the basis that the waters of spring next to the tomb which is said to have healing powers.

Another keramat, that of Radin Mas Ayu, just a stone's throw away on the slopes of Mount Faber.

Another keramat, that of Radin Mas Ayu, just a stone’s throw away on the slopes of Mount Faber.

Outside the gate two urns containing sticks of incense provide evidence of the veneration of the site, which the Berita Minggu article says attracts visitors of all races. Umi does confirm this, telling us that there are indeed visitors who come from as far as Europe, who offer prayers at the site.

Yellow is seen along with the colour green.

Yellow is seen along with the colour green.

Before we leave, we ask Umi about the significance of the green seen on some of the graves. Umi tells us that they are of descendants of “shaikhs” from Iraq, related to Muslim holyman Habib Noh (of Keramat Habib Noh). Whether it is completely true or not is hard to establish. She adds the grave of an infant seen under the tree in the middle of the compound, is that of a grandchild of Habib Noh. As we thank Umi for her information and turn to leave, Umi adds that the tree is a holy one which should never be cut down.

URA's Draft Master Plan 2013 shows the Keramat Bukit Kasita area as a reserve site.

URA’s Draft Master Plan 2013 shows the Keramat Bukit Kasita area as a reserve site.

Whether or not the tree will ever be cut down, would depend very on whether the site and the wealth of history that comes with it is discarded in the same way much of what made us who we as Singaporeans are has been sacrificed for the glitter of the soulless world we have come to embrace. What is known today, based on the latest (2013) draft of the URA Master Plan, is that the site is a reserved site for which there are no immediate plans. In that there is hope that what may be a link we have to a world we might otherwise have lost touch with, may somehow survive.


See also:

A Straits Times Article published on 6 Dec 2013:

HDB estate with grave links to the past. Muslim burial site in Bukit Purmei holds historical, spiritual significance.





The lost waterfront

19 09 2013

The former waterfront at Collyer Quay is certainly one place which exemplifies how Singapore has transformed over the years, discarding much of what made Singapore a Singapore which was full of character and flavour, to the sea of glass, steel and concrete Singapore has become today.

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The waterfront we inherited from our colonial masters was one of wonderfully designed buildings which might have rivaled Shanghai’s Bund. Even in 1971 after the Overseas Union Shopping Centre (see image above) did spoil some of that flavour, it still retained much of its original character. Then, the three “skyscrapers” that came up in the 1950s: the modern looking 15 storey Shell House (1959); the Bank of China Building (1954); and the Asia Insurance Building (1954) (out of picture), still dominated. It was however the grand looking edifices – several of them attributed to architecture firm Swan and MacLaren which designed many notable buildings from our past, which would have been noticed. This included the Maritime Building (former Union Building) with its tower and the HongKong Bank Chambers (1924) next to it. The Fullerton Building (1928) which housed the General Post Office also wouldn’t have been missed.

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The beginning of the end for the old waterfront came at the end of the decade with the demolition of the HongKong Bank building notable not just for its English Renaissance style design, but also for its stained glass skylight over its main banking hall and huge bronze entrance doors, in 1979. The Maritime Building, built originally for the Union Insurance Society of Canton and which once housed the Far East headquarters of the Royal Air Force, soon followed in the early 1980s. What we do see today is a towering skyline of glass and steel against which the surviving “skyscrapers” of the 1950s are now dwarfed. The buildings along old waterfront which did survive are the Fullerton Building (Fullerton Hotel), Clifford Pier (part of Fullerton Bay Hotel), Bank of China Building, Customs House, and the Asia Insurance Building (Ascott Raffles Place).

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The ‘sunken temple’ of Toa Payoh

18 09 2013

A curious sight that greeted anyone travelling down Lorong 6 close to the Temple / Kim Keat Estate area of Toa Payoh in its early days and one I well remember was a temple that at road level, appeared to be have buried in the ground. The temple, Poh Tiong Keng 普忠宫 (Pu Zhong Gong), which I would refer to as the ‘sunken temple’, was one which went back to the village origins of the area, well before the towering public housing blocks of flats arrived.

The only photograph I have managed to find of the Poh Tien Keong with Block 33 seen behind it (online photograph at http://aliciapatterson.org/stories/aged-singapore-veneration-collides-20th-century).

The area where the 'Poh Tien Keong was as seen today.

The area where the ‘Poh Tien Keong was as seen today.

The Block 33 view of the area where the 'sunken temple' was.

The Block 33 view of the area where the ‘sunken temple’ was.

Set in what would have been an undulating area, the levelling of the surrounding ground to put up blocks of flats in the late 1960s, it found itself in a hole in the ground with the 11 storey block 33 towering above it, surrounded by retaining walls put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to protect the temple from being buried. The temple was one of three existing temples which were left untouched by the HDB in clearing the land in the area for the development of the new housing estate. The other two were the Siong Lim Temple and the  Seu Teck Sean Temple.

The temple finding itself in a hole in the ground as work on the new public housing estate of Toa Payoh was being carried out in 1968.

The temple finding itself in a hole in the ground as work on the new public housing estate of Toa Payoh was being carried out in 1968 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Another photograph taken during the development of Toa Payoh in 1968.

Another photograph taken during the development of Toa Payoh in 1968 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Sadly the sight is one we no longer see. The temple was demolished in late 1977, not long after I moved out of Toa Payoh. The area where the temple was will now also see a huge change – the block of flats behind where the temple was along with several others in the area – some of which were leased out temporarily to Resorts World Sentosa to house their workers after residents were moved out, are due to be demolished (one of the blocks which will be demolished is Block 28, in front of which the iconic dragon of  Toa Payoh can be found).

The hole in the ground after the temple was demolished in 1977 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The hole in the ground after the temple was demolished in 1977 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/)

A last look around Block 33

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Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention that the Poh Tiong Beo (普忠庙) located diagonally across the road from this site was built to replace the ‘sunken temple’ as drainage was poor in the recess the original temple sat in and that would get flooded everytime it rained heavily.






The Bench through the rain

11 07 2013

A view of The Bench through the rain with the colours of the rising of the sun in the backdrop at 7.06 am on 9 July 2013. The Bench is very much a part of the scene along the top of an old seawall that used to belong to Kampong Wak Hassan at the end of Sembawang Road. That it is there, under the cool shade of a tree, is a mystery. Nobody does seem to know why it is there or who it had belonged to. It does serve to connect us with the kampong (now spelt kampung) or village which might otherwise be forgotten. The village was one of the last of the villages which one featured across much of rural Singapore to be cleared in 1998. More information on the village can be found on a previous post Monoscapes: Kampong Wak Hassan beach. The beach along the seawall is also one of the last natural sandy beaches left in Singapore and serves as a welcome escape for me from the overly urbanised landscape of modern Singapore (see: The song of a forgotten shore).

A view through the rain, 7.06 am, 9 July 2013.





The star of Chong Pang Village

3 07 2013

A landmark that would have been hard to miss on a northern journey to the end of Sembawang Road or to Sembawang Shipyard was the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, which occupied a corner of Chong Pang Village. The corner which the church occupied, was where a fork in the road gave one a choice of taking a left to Canberra Road or a right to continue along Sembawang Road. For many in the pre-1971 days of the Naval Base, the church would have marked the area which led to Canberra Gate – an entrance along the southern boundary of the huge base which had stretched along the northern coast of Singapore from a line which ran northeast from Canberra Gate all the way west close to the Causeway to what is today the western end of Woodlands Waterfront.

The Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Chong Pang Village (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro).

The Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Chong Pang Village (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro).

The church building, small by today’s standards (it would have had a seating capacity of maybe a hundred or two) and surrounded by a iron picket fence typical of fences of old, had a wonderful homely feel to it. The building was completed in 1953 through the efforts of its then parish priest, Fr. Albert Fortier. It  was blessed on 13 December 1953 by the visiting New Dehli based Apostolic Internuncio to Malaya (and India), Monsignor Martin Lucas who had a busy Sunday – he also blessed the Church of  the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Highland Road earlier on the same day.

The back of the church building (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro). The church was blessed on 13 December 1953.

The back of the church building seen in 1989 (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro). The church was blessed on 13 December 1953.

The parish’s history does go back a little further than the building that stood at the start of Canberra Road. Based on information on the church’s website, the origins of the parish goes back to the beginnings of the Naval Base when priests based at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes sought to extend their ministry to the small community of Catholics from 1926 – probably involved in the construction of the base which was fully completed only in 1938.  Services were to first be held in a makeshift building on the grounds of the Naval Base School before the parish was established by Fr. Dominic Vendargon at a building at Jalan Kedai (this would be the area across Canberra Road from where Sembawang Mart is today) which had been used  as a school during the Japanese Occupation in August 1949. It was Fr. Vendargon’s successor, Fr. Fortier, who had to put up a new church building after the former school was deemed unsafe in 1952 and the simple building was built at a cost of some $53,000. A statue of Christ which stood in the grounds just outside the church, another landmark, was added in February 1956.

A view of the church from the main road in 1989 (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro).

A view of the church from the main road in 1989 (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro). The statue of Christ can be seen to the right.

The church building was one which I did visit from time to time in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, it did serve a large community of Tamil and Malayalee      parishioners, many of whom worked at Sembawang Shipyard which had taken over the Naval Dockyard in 1968. With the days of the village coming to a close in 1989 – it was being cleared to make way for the new public housing estate of Sembawang, the church (its land was also acquired) had to seek new premises. Its then parish priest, Fr. Louis Amiotte announced the construction of a new church at Yishun Street 22, designed in it was said to be in the shape of Noah’s Ark, which was completed in 1992. The new church building, built at the cost of $4 million, was blessed on 30 May 1992 by then Archbishop Gregory Yong.

The new church building at Yishun Street 22 - shaped like Noah's Ark, was completed in 1992.

The new church building at Yishun Street 22 – shaped like Noah’s Ark, was completed in 1992.

Much has changed in the area since the village disappeared at the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s. The new housing estate started coming up at the end of the 1990s and very little traces of the once bustling village are left. Much of the land on and around which the church had stood – except for the expanded road, is now vacant, awaiting future development which, at least based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Master Plan 2008, will see sports and recreation facilities coming up.

The corner where the church stood as seen today. Part of the grounds would be on what would today be the widened Sembawang Road. The corner at Sembawang Avenue and Sembawang Road is slated to be used for future development of sports and recreation facilities.

The corner where the church stood as seen today. Part of the grounds would be on what would today be the widened Sembawang Road. The corner at Sembawang Avenue and Sembawang Road is slated to be used for future development of sports and recreation facilities.

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978





Lost on the ridge

23 05 2013

Perched at the edge of Pasir Panjang Ridge (a.k.a. Kent Ridge) facing south is a remnant of a time and place there is little memory of lying hidden and forgotten. The cluster of flat roofed buildings, designed such that they could quite easily be hidden, are what remains of an military outpost that was part of a defence line that had been established well before the war along the southern ridges – preserved only because they have long remained hidden from view.

A world that remains lost.

On a hill not so far away lies a world that remains lost.

The opportunity to visit the outpost, which is in more recent times closed-off to the public for safety reasons, came during a walk to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Pasir Panjang I had participated in. Stepping through the vegetation which has it well camouflaged, and into the area through one of the buildings was like stepping through a doorway into a parallel world well lost in time.

Access to the buildings is through vegetation that has them well camouflaged.

Access to the buildings is through vegetation that has them well camouflaged.

A close-up of the writing on the wall giving an indication of when the outpost was built.

A close-up of the writing on the wall giving an indication of when the outpost was built.

A doorway into a parallel world.

A doorway into a parallel world.

That there were signs that life did once exist there added an air of, if I may call it, surreality. A room, its walls coloured green by algae, has the obvious signs that it was a kitchen. In another, a bath tub could be seen with a piece of debris that at first glance, resembled a body part. That we do see that is certainly evidence that the outpost was meant to operate on its own, as perhaps as a surveillance post perched on an isolated corner of the strategically important ridge.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

The bathroom.

The bathroom.

It is along the stretch of Kent Ridge which runs from what now is Clementi Road east towards where it meets Marina Hill at South Buona Vista Road at a pass which had been known as The Gap occupied by the National University of Singapore (NUS) where we find the outpost, close to its high point. The ridge made a natural position from which the military installations in the Wessex Estate area could be defended from a ground assault from the south and it was on it that one of the last battles in the lead-up to the fall of Singapore in February 1942, was fought. That it was only rediscovered in more recent times is perhaps one reason that while much of paraphernalia associated with the former military presence on the ridge has been lost over time, the outpost has survived to this day, serving as a physical reminder of a past we perhaps have been too quick to forget.

A building on the upper terrace.

A building on the upper terrace.

A stairway.

A stairway.

A building on the lower terrace.

A view through the vegetation to a building on the lower terrace.

The buildings, arranged on two terraces, which might have remained abandoned following the war, do show signs perhaps of a more recent use. A tyre lies along a corridor littered with fallen leaves, as does a metal pail, which does somehow increase the sense of eeriness which takes over as soon as the initial sense of surreality fades. In the silence of the lost world, there perhaps were voices of the past to be heard. But with the little time there was to dwell in the silence of the forgotten world, the voices are ones which do remain unheard.

A closer look at the building on  the lower terrace.

A closer look at the building on the lower terrace.

A tyre along a corridor.

A tyre along a leaf strewn corridor.

A metal pail close by.

A metal pail close by.

A window into a forgotten world.

A window into a forgotten world.





A reminder of a world we long have discarded

10 05 2013

A road which featured in the many drives my father took us on to wonderful coastline at the eastern tip of Singapore was Tampines Road. Once Singapore’s longest road, the road is today 5 kilometres shorter than it was, truncated in part by the construction of the Tampines Expressway (TPE) on the eastern end of the road. While much of the road bears little resemblance to the rural road off which the fencing of the northern boundary of the then Paya Lebar International Airport featured, as did many kampongs and fishing ponds, there are still some reminders of the world which except for the airport which is now used by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), has long since vanished.

A peek at a world left behind.

A window into a little piece of Tampines Road which the time seems to have been left behind.

A motor and tyre workshop dominates much of an area where time seems to stand very still.

A motor and tyre workshop dominates much of an area where time seems to stand very still.

One reminder is a little pocket of a more recent past, which seems to lie well forgotten, at what was the 9¾ milestone of the old Tampines Road. Close to where a cluster of huge temple complexes which if memory serves me right started to crop up in the 1970s is, the reminder is a remnant of what once was Hun Yeang Village – the name of which is remembered only by that little bit of Hun Yeang Road which still does exist. The area lining Tampines Road around Hun Yeang Road was where in the 1970s the Hun Yeang Community Centre and the Tampines Veterinary Clinic could also be found, all which have since disappeared, leaving only a rather dilapidated looking row of shophouses from the village’s more recent past behind. The row houses businesses dominated by a tyre and motor workshop, all of which does seem to be wedged in between the past and the present – a reminder of the suburban Singapore of the 1970s that we have discarded.

The row of shophouses at Hun Yeang Road.

The row of shophouses at Hun Yeang Road.

A scene which resembles that of the semi-urban rural world of the 1970s.

A scene which resembles that of the semi-urban rural world of the 1970s.

The area to the left was where the Community Centre once was, and to the right where the vet clinic was.

The area to the left was where the Community Centre once was, and to the right where the vet clinic was.

Interestingly, the man who gave his name to Hun Yeang Road (as well as the village) was Mr Khoo Hun Yeang, a prominent Penang born businessman who lived from 1860 to 1917. Mr Khoo, whose father owned a coconut plantation on the mainland side of Penang, had in his time run the coconut plantation as well as making a name in other businesses. He was also later to join the Opium and Spirit revenue farm in Penang in which his father was a partner in, and later serve as a Managing Partner (from 1899) and Managing Director (from 1902 to 1906) of the Opium and Spirit Farm in Singapore. The farms – which were licenses granted through a tender for the collection of taxes on behalf of the then Straits Settlements government for items on which the government regulated and had a monopoly on, particularly that related to Opium and spirits were highly lucrative. Mr Khoo left the Opium and Spirit Farm in 1906, moving to Kuching (there is also a street in Kuching named after him) where he was involved in the construction business. Mr Khoo’s association with the area came about through his purchase of a 81 ha. fruit and rubber plantation here in 1913. Tragically, Mr Khoo passed away in a motor accident in Medan to which he has gone to to seek medical treatment in 1917 and is buried in Penang.

Truck tyres dominate the scene in front of the row of shophouses.

Truck tyres in front of the row of shophouses.

That time would catch up with what’s left of the former Hun Yeang Village, there is little doubt. But until that happens, this little piece of the past will be one I will hold on to, not so much as a place I have interacted with, but one in which I am reminded of that more familiar and gentler world I grew up in – a world that much as I would like to, I would never be able to return to.

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Images related to Tampines Primary School / Hun Yeang Village provided by hoosiers:

Tampines Primary School Crest / Badge.

Tampines Primary School Crest / Badge.

Members of the Staff, 1968.

Members of the Staff, 1968.

Members of the Staff, 1982.

Members of the Staff, 1982.

This gentleman was our senior assistant then. I got to meet him during this CNY for the first time since 1977 (37 yrs later). Pretty overwhelming..

This gentleman was our senior assistant then.
I got to meet him during this CNY for the first time since 1977 (37 yrs later). Pretty overwhelming..

The mere sight of this turquoise Ford Anglia will strike fear in every pupil of TPS as it means the Senior Assistant cum Discipline Master is around somewhere in the school..

The mere sight of this turquoise Ford Anglia will strike fear in every pupil of TPS as it means the Senior Assistant cum Discipline Master is around somewhere in the school..

TPS2

TPS4

TPS3

Map showing location of Hun Yeang Village.

Map showing location of Hun Yeang Village.

Excursion to Paya Lebar Airport.

Excursion to Paya Lebar Airport.






A church once occupied by Sin

19 03 2013

I took a walk by what, for a short moment, appeared to be a church in the woods. In an area in which woods in any form would have long abandoned – the corner of Waterloo Street and Middle Road, the building which resembles a small village church has for the better part of a century not actually used as one. Together with an adjacent two storey building, the church is now part of the Sculpture Square complex, a space dedicated to the promotion and development of contemporary 3-dimensional (3D) art.

A church in the woods?

A church in the woods?

My memories of the buildings are ones which date back to my younger days (of which I have actually written about in a previous post). The church building itself was always a curious sight each time I passed through the area, whether on the way home from church in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or from school in the late 1970s, when it had been occupied by Sin. The walls of the building were then coloured not just by the colour of its fading coat of paint, but also by streaks of motor oil and grease, having been used by a motor workshop, the Sin Sin Motor Co. My mother remembers it being used as a motor workshop as far back as her own days in school (she went to St. Anthony’s Convent further down Middle Road in the 1950s). The building next to it, which is built in a similar layout as many in the area which might ones which have been homes of wealthy merchants, had in those days been used as the Tai Loke Hotel (previously Tai Loke Lodging House) – one of several rather seedy looking budget hotels found in the area.

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, seen from Middle Road in 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

While not much is known about the building which the Tai Loke occupied, there is enough that is known about the church building which was erected from 1870 to 1875, based on information on a National Heritage Board (NHB) plaque at the site as well as on Sculpture Square’s website. It first saw use as the Christian Institute. The Methodists were in 1885, invited to use the building and it became the Middle Road Church (or Malay Church) after a transfer to the Methodists was made in 1892, until the church moved to Kampong Kapor in 1929. Interestingly, the building also housed the Methodist Girls’ School which was started at nearby Short Street for a while until 1900. According to information on Sculpture Square’s website, the building had apparently also seen life as a Chinese restaurant, the “May Blossom Restaurant” during the war.

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s - after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square's website).

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s – after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square’s website).

Following years of neglect, the former church building when it was vacated by the motor workshop possibly at the end of the 1980s, was left in rather a dilapidated condition and it was a local sculptor, Sun Yu Li, who saw its potential for use as an arts venue which was opened as Sculpture Square in 1999.





Another Wak Hassan sunrise

30 01 2013

This morning’s sunrise taken at 6.57 am and 7.22 am:

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Mornings far from the madding crowds

30 01 2013

A place I am glad is there – at least for now, in which I find an escape from the unbearably overcrowded world Singapore has become, is a quiet and somewhat forgotten corner of northern Singapore where the former Kampong Wak Hassan once was. It has become for me not just a world where I run off to for that rare moment of calm, but also where I am able to take in the joy and the surprise that the break of day brings in the changing hues at sunrise …

6.53 am 28 January 2013.

6.53 am 28 January 2013.

6.59 am 29 January 2013.

6.59 am 29 January 2013.








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