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 walk down Neil Road

30 10 2012

Tucked away in a rather quiet but no less interesting corner of a district of Singapore that has come to be called Chinatown is an area which is often overlooked. The area, in Chinatown’s south-western corner incorporates the Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area, part of the Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area and boasts several architectural gems, which have unfortunately been cast in the shadow of a towering 50 storey public housing development, The Pinnacle@Duxton at nearby Duxton Plain.

Several conservation gems can be found along Neil Road, including what would have been the houses of the very wealthy (judging from the enclosed front yards these units at No. 56 – 60) were provided with.

Units 56 – 60 Neil Road seen in 1983 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The area is certainly one that is worth exploring, not just for the notable clan associations and clubs – one is the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many luminaries including the illustrious Tan Kah Kee, set amongst the many rows of beautifully conserved shophouses. Running partly along the area’s southern boundary is Neil Road which can perhaps be said to lie at the heart of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) conservation efforts – the pilot shophouse conservation project undertaken by the URA stands at No. 9 Neil Road.

The Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area boasts many architectural conservation gems and is also one that has been cast in the shadow of a towering public housing development at nearby Duxton Plain.

The Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many of Singapore’s luminaries.

Neil Road starts off where South Bridge Road ends at its junction with Maxwell and Tanjong Pagar Roads, rising up towards the Bukit Pasoh area. It is at this point that a gorgeous and very recognisable piece of architecture, the Jinrikisha Station, greets one’s eye. Built in 1903 in the Edwardian style on a triangular plan with a fairfaced brickwork exterior, the building is one that certainly needs no introduction and is now owned by Hong Kong Jackie Chan. It is just up the road from the Jinrikisha Station that No. 9, which now serves as a home to a Chinese tea shop Tea Chapter, lies.

The Jinrikisha Station at the start of Neil Road – built as a registration centre for rickshaws is now owned by Jackie Chan.

The conservation of No. 9 Neil Road was undertaken as part of a pilot URA shophouse restoration project that took place from 1987 to 1988 that involved a total of 32 shophouses built at the end of the 19th century, with No. 9 selected as a demonstration unit. The restored unit at No. 9 was where HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had tea at during a visit in 1989. The successful conservation project involving the 32 houses was the first phase of a larger effort to conserve a total of 220 government owned shophouses in the Tanjong Pagar area and intended to demonstrate the technical and commercial viability of shophouse conservation. The effort was one that was welcomed by conservationists as it had come at a time when large parts of the city had already been cleared of the pre-war shophouses which once dominated the cityscape.

No. 9 Neil Road – the very first conservation shophouse.

The 220 shophouses are on a 4.1 hectare site that was acquired from 1981 to 1984 by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The units had contained a mix of businesses and residents including many traditional businesses – one was Chan Pui Kee, an antique dealer and antique furniture restorer which had operated at No. 7 since 1913 (and has since moved to a restored shophouse at Lorong 24A Geylang). The residents of the houses had lived mainly on the upper floors, some at the point of acquisition, having lived there for much of their lives. Many were trishaw riders, craftsmen, and even prostitutes who worked in the area, living in very crowded spaces, renting rooms or cubicles for as little as $4 a month. The acquired houses, many of which had once been in the hands of Arab property owners, were to be demolished to make way for public housing, but a shift in thinking of our urban planners on high density public housing in the city centre saved them from that fate.

Conserved three storey shophouses along Neil Road.

Walking up the incline of the road, there are further examples of the conservation efforts that eventually was to involve a greater part of Chinatown, including several voluntary conservation initiatives. One such initiative is the conservation of the former Eng Aun Tong factory building at 89 Neil Road. As many familiar with the area would be aware of, Eng Aun Tong was a name used by the Haw Par brothers and the factory was where the most famous of their products, Tiger Balm, was once made. Based on information on the URA conservation of built heritage site, the building was built in 1924 in the Neoclassical Style. The starting up of the factory coincided with the Aw family’s move to Singapore from Rangoon (Yangon) in the 1920s. The factory operated until 1971 when production operations were contracted out and production of the famous ointment was moved to the Jack Chia group’s factories in Jurong.

The conserved former Eng Aun Tong factory building – where Tiger Balm had once been made.

The Eng Aun Tong factory building as seen depicted in a 1920s advertisement for Tiger Balm (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Walking past the former Eng Aun Tong factory, one will notice the blue balustrades of a concrete bridge. The bridge is one that passes over what is technically the first rail corridor conservation project. The corridor – now a linear park named Duxton Plain Park was where an extension to the original rail line (pre-1932 Deviation) had been constructed in 1907 to connect the terminal at Tank Road to connect with the waterfront, extending to Pasir Panjang. Operations on the extension were short-lived and the line was dismantled in between 1912 to 1914. A stretch from Yan Kit Road to New Bridge Road was retained as a public park. The park is one that is associated with one of the clubs in the area, a martial arts association – the Chin Woo Athletic Association (精武體育會or 精武体育会), as is evident from a steel sign erected on one of the bridge’s balustrades which reads “精武體育會操場” – the park had long served as a training ground for the association which has had a presence in the area since its formation here in 1922. It has been reported that our first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had often watched the association practice lion and dragon dances at the park in his younger days (he had lived as a boy in his paternal grandfather’s residence at nearby 147 Neil Road).

The bridge over the first rail corridor conservation project – now Duxton Plain Park. A sign tells us that it had served as a training ground for the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Living at nearby 147 Neil Road, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had as a young boy often caught many of the associations lion and dragon dance practice sessions at the park.

From this point, Neil Road soon crosses Cantonment Road and takes one west out of the Chinatown district towards another quiet and delightful conservation area, the Blair Plain Conservation Area. Crossing Cantonment Road, I am reminded of the many horror stories I have heard in my younger days that was associated with balancing the clutch on the slope at the junction during driving tests. Those were days when tests were conducted out of the former Maxwell Road driving test centre when the Traffic Police had its headquarters at the building which is today the Red Dot Design Museum. These days, it is across Cantonment Road that we notice a huge police presence – that of a towering new law enforcement complex named the Police Cantonment Complex.

A look into the compound of a conserved row of three shophouses at 56 – 60 Neil Road.

It might be a little hard to notice a little Victorian building that stands beneath the towering complex along Neil Road – especially now with its covered up for restoration work. The very pretty building, despite being very compact, once housed a school, and was where the Fairfield Girls’ School (which later became Fairfield Methodist School and is now Fairfield Methodist School) had operated at from 1912 to 1983. The building, built with the donation of a Mr Fairfield (hence the name of the school) is now part of the Police complex, although intended originally as a childcare centre for staff at the Police complex, the building will now house a Police recruitment centre.

The former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School (photo on the URA website).

It is beyond the former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School on the opposite side of the road that we come to the cluster of terrace houses which contains the unit that Mr Lee had spent some of his boyhood years at. Just down from that unit at No. 147, is No. 157 which is probably the jewel in the crown of the conservation efforts along Neil Road. That painted blue in an attempt to restore it to its original colour isn’t only a house which has seen it exterior restored but also one which has had much its fittings and furniture retained and restored and is possibly the best example of a Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese house from the turn of the 20th Century that exists today. The house, thought to have been built in the 1890s, had once belonged to shipping magnate Wee Bin and his descendants, has its interior retained through the conservation efforts of the National University of Singapore (NUS) (which owns the house having purchased it for the historical value of it and its contents) and the URA. Among the wonderfully preserved fittings is a very ornate carved wooden screen which separates the main hall from the interior of the house. The Baba House as it is called now, has some of its original furniture and flooring is well worth a visit. Visits are strictly by appointment only and advance arrangements for heritage tours are required. More information can be found at the NUS website. Do note that photography is not permitted inside the Baba House.

Baba House at 157 Neil Road – now owned by NUS and managed by NUS Museum was beautifully restored from 2006 to 2008.

Units 157 Neil Road (Baba House) seen in 1982 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).


The walk along Neil Road was part of a guided walk “Neil Road/NUS Baba House Walking Tour“, one in a series of tours conducted by the URA in conjunction with the URA Architectural Heritage Awards 2012. While registration for two of the remaining tours are closed, there is an ongoing exhibition at the URA Centre Atrium until 10 November 2012 which showcases the five award winners. The exhibition is open Mondays to Fridays from 8.30am to 7pm and on Saturdays from 8.30am to 5pm. It is closed on Sundays and Public Holidays.






A walk along the ridge: Commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang

14 02 2011

I took a walk with a group of about 50 yesterday morning, along a part of Singapore that I frequent only because of visits I make from time-to-time to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the course of my work, and in doing so, I learnt quite a lot about the area where one of the fiercest battles took place as the impregnable fortress that the colonial masters of Singapore had thought the island was, capitulated to the invading Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of the February of 1942. The walk had in fact been one that takes place on an annual basis to commemorate the battle, the Battle of Pasir Panjang, with took place over the 13th and 14th of February, in the final hours before General Percival did the unthinkable, being made to take a march of shame up the hill on which General Yamashita had set up shop at the Ford Factory, in an act of surrender that took place on the 15th of February. The walk was organised by a volunteer group, the Raffles Museum Toddycats of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, NUS and was led by the Siva whose intimate knowledge of the history as well as the flora and fauna of the area was supplemented by Dr Lai Chee Kien, of the Architecture Department who shared his insights on the architectural aspects of the NUS and in a few other areas as well.

Walking up Kent Ridge as the rising sun made an appearance. A solemn reminder of the occasion of the 13th of February 1942 when the when the 18th Division of Imperial Forces of the Land of the Rising Sun mounted their attack on what was then known as Pasir Panjang Ridge.

The walk which started at the University Cultural Centre, close to a corner of the rectangular area where the battle was enacted, at what is now the intersection of Clementi Road and the Ayer Rajah Expressway, began with a short introduction and a walk eastwards up Kent Ridge Crescent to the sight of the rising sun, perhaps as a solemn reminder of the battle during which the forces of the Land of the Rising Sun overran the determined but outnumbered defenders of the Malay Regiment that set out to defend the geographical feature that is now known to us as Kent Ridge, and continued along the length of the ridge eastwards towards what is now known as Bukit Chandu. Along the way, our guide Siva was not only able to share his knowledge of the battle as it played out, but also on some history of the area, the etymology of Kent Ridge and Marina Hill, as well as on the flora and fauna of the area.

Along the way, our expert guide Siva, was able to share many different facets of Kent Ridge, including on its flora and fauna.

The Simpoh Air and Resam Fern are fast growing plants commonly found on Kent Ridge as well as much of Singapore taking over much of the land that is cleared. The leaves of the Simpoh Air are used to wrap Tempeh.

The Battle of Pasir Panjang, sometimes referred to as the battle of Pasir Panjang Ridge, involved an invasion force of some 13,000 troops of the first wave of invading Japanese forces of the 18th Division sweeping down from the west towards the city. The ridge was defended by the remnants of the Malay Regiment, in which the origins of today’s Malaysian Armed Forces lie in, a poorly trained and ill prepared group of men who had been tasked to defend the approach to the ridge, the Gap but instead bore the brunt of the thrust of the invasion force. The accounts of this battle are well documented on the wonderful resource page that the Toddycats have put up, which can be found at this link, as well as in a newspaper report in the Straits Times of 13 February 1967 entitled “Fire and Death on Opium Hill” (on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Battle).

Kent Ridge features many wonderful bungalows that would once have housed military personnel on a featured that gave a commanding view of the western coastline and area around the ridge.

Much of the land around was used for plantations of among other plants, included rubber trees and nutmeg, and has since been taken over by Secondary Forest.

One of the interesting reminders of the military past of the ridge is an outpost, a collection of four flat roofed buildings that served as a lookout point over the southward facing slopes of the ridge. The roofs made the cluster of buildings, which are set on three levels, easily camouflaged. Much of the area is inaccessible to the public as the buildings are in dilapidated state and it was a treat for me to see the buildings. Peeking into some of the rooms of the buildings, it was easy to identify the functions of the rooms as well as to recognise that the lookout would have been self-sufficient. There was one room that was obviously used as a kitchen and another with the remains of an old bathtub – but other than that, very little evidence of anything else remains.

One of the interesting remnants of the military past is the Outpost, a collection of four buildings that served as a lookout point, set up on three levels on the southward facing slopes of the ridge at Prince Edward Point.

The buildings of the Outpost feature flat roofs that can be easily be camouflaged.

A stairway providing communication between two of the three levels.




 

Another interesting set of facts that came out of the walk was the sharing by Dr Lai on the architecture of the NUS and the thinking behind some of the features which the architect behind the NUS shared with him. Among the interesting facts was one revolving around the use of over burnt bricks and the use of the primary colours for the features: yellow for the communication channels that provided the links to the various parts of the NUS laid over the ridge; red for the handrails – the orginals of which have mostly been replaced; and blue for features such as doors.

Following not so much the yellow brick road, but the yellow ceiling is a sure way around the NUS.

One of the last remaining original red iron railings ….

Another view of the ridge …

Another remnant of the past?

Moving east to the area which was known as the Gap, where South Buona Vista Road meets Kent Ridge Road, Siva provided the evidence of origins of the name Kent Ridge and Marina Hill just across the road, on which Kent Ridge Park now sits. A plaque commemorating the visit of HRH the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, and her son the Duke of Kent, Prince Edward of Kent stands at the corner, telling us of the visit of the Duchess and the Duke on 3 October 1952 and the naming of the ridge after the visit of the royal pair as well as Marina Hill after the Duchess. The commemorative plaque is due to be shifted from its original position as there are plans to widen the road.

Siva speaking about the plaque commemorating the visit of HRH the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, and her son the Duke of Kent, Prince Edward of Kent.

A close-up of the commemorative plaque which provides the evidence of the etymology of Kent Ridge as well as Marina Hill. It was in honour of the visit on 3 October 1952 that the plaque was laid on 23 February 1954 and that the name of Pasir Panjang Ridge was changed to Kent Ridge.

Across South Buona Vista Road, part of the ridge had to be skirted around due to it being occupied by the premises of the Defence Science Organisation – but we were able to continue further down to where a creek was behind Normanton Park where we were shown the Gelam tree, a member of the Eucalyptus family, also know as Kayu Putih – its oil is used for medicinal purposes and bark is apparently used as caulking material in traditional wooden boat building. It was from here that we made our way back up the ridge to where Kent Ridge Park sits.

Two of the participants in the walk near Marina Hill.

Part of the creek near Normanton Park.

Guide Airani showing the leaves of the Gelam Tree.

The bark of the Gelam is used as caulking material in traditional wooden boat building.

Scenes of autumn in Singapore?

The thin tree trunks of the secondary forest in the area.

Back up on the ridge at Kent Ridge Park, we were able to take in the commanding view which made the ridge an important military asset, and we made our way (some of us, muscles aching) then to our intended destination, Bukit Chandu, via a canopy walk that provides a wonderful northwards view beyond the ridge as well as of the forest below (as well as of some of the colourful inhabitants of the forest that inlcuded a Green Crested Lizard). And after what seemed like a very long walk some five hours after we set off, we arrived at midday at Bukit Chandu or Opium Hill, named after an opium processing plant that had featured at the foot of the hill – the scene of the final stand on the 14th of February 1942 of C Company of the 1st Battalion of the Malay Regiment and on which the Reflections at Bukit Chandu Museum stands as a reminder of the valiant efforts of the men of the Malay Regiment. Leaving the hill, it wasn’t the sore muscles that made the biggest impression, but the overload of information provided by the guides and the great sense of appreciation for the men who fought so gallantly in defence of freedom.

The flight of stairs back up to the ridge.

The group at the top of the ridge.

The ridge at Marina Hill provides a commanding view of the western harbour.

As well of the reclamation works that are extending Singapore’s southern shores.

A memorial plaque commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang at Kent Ridge Park.

The view north-east from the canopy walk from Kent Ridge Park to Bukit Chandu.

The canopy walk.

A resident of the ridge, a Green Crested Lizard, says hello.


Resources on the Battle of Pasir Panjang and on Kent Ridge:

A Pasir Panjang/Kent Ridge Heritage

Fire and Death on Opium Hill

Reflections at Bukit Chandu

The Battle of Pasir Panjang Revisted


More blog postings on the walk:

Fifty people and two dogs on the Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk, by N. Sivasothi a.k.a. Otterman, on Raffles Museum Toddycats!

The walk to commemorate The Battle of Pasir Panjang! by Leone Fabre on “my life in Singapore”.


The next Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk would take place on 15 February 2014, which will also mark the 72nd Anniversary of the battle. For more information and to signup, please click on this link.









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