Dawn by the strait

26 05 2014

The colours of the dawn, at 6.35 am on 25 May 2014, seen painting the lightening sky over the Johor Strait (or Tebrau Strait). The area by the sea where the former Kampong Wak Hassan had once been, looks east towards the Pasir Gudang area of Johor across the channel, does make it an ideal location to catch the spectacle that often comes with the dawn of the new day.

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The final mile

12 05 2014

A last reminder perhaps that’s left of an age when distance markers played an important role in Singapore is a milestone marker that was uncovered quite recently, having long been hidden behind a tree. Discovered by Akai Chew, who recently posted his findings ‘On a Little Street in Singapore‘, the granite marker lies half buried, it’s top half carved with the number ‘3’ – which does, in the position it is found in, correspond to the 3rd Milestone of what would have been a main thoroughfare taking one out of the city towards rural Singapore.

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The use of ‘milestones’ as markers of a location, had by the time I came into the world, become a widespread practice in Singapore. This was possibly somewhat of a necessity, given the absence of recognisable landmarks and a clear system for addresses in many of the rural areas. It was common to hear places referred to by where they were distance-wise along a particular thoroughfare, a practice that for many who developed a habit of doing it, is being carried to this very day (examples: 9th Milestone Bukit Timah, 6th Milestone Serangoon) long after the introduction of the metric system got us thinking in kilometres.

Milestones markers, when I did became aware of them from the many drives my father made across the causeway, were not quite as noticeable in Singapore as they were along the Malaysian trunk roads. There, the markers provided a measure of the distances along points along the road to the next main town or towns. This did help in estimating the time it would take to arrive at a destination, and making those seemingly endless drives a little less monotonous.

One thing that I did remember from those days, was that ‘Singapore’ was a distance of 17 miles by road from Johor Bahru – the distance being measured to the General Post Office or G.P.O. (what is today more commonly referred to as the Fullerton Building). For an interesting insight into how this did come about, please visit James Tann’s blog, which does have a post on the subject of ‘mile zero': The geographic centre of Singapore.





A window into a Singapore we have discarded

6 05 2014

It may well be on the island from which the early building blocks of modern Singapore was obtained that we will find the last reminders of a way of life the new world it built has rendered irrelevant. The island, Pulau Ubin or the granite island, is the last to support the remnants of a once ubiquitous village community, a feature not only of the island but also much of a rural Singapore we no longer see.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

While in all probability, the days for what’s left of the island’s village communities are numbered; there remains only a handful of villagers who now number in their tens rather than in the low thousands at its height and who hold stubbornly on to a way of life that will have little appeal to the generations that will follow; there at least in a well preserved village house, House 363B, that little reminder of a time and place that does now seem all too far away.

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House 363B is typical of a Chinese village dwelling, with a zinc roof, and a cemented base supporting half cemented and half wooded walls. Outside it, rubber sheet rollers tell us of days when much of the rural landscape had been dominated by rubber trees. On the inside, there is a collection of once familiar household items. These include a food safe – complete with receptacles placed under its four legs to keep insects out (a necessity in homes in the pre-refrigerator era), classic furniture, foot-pedal sewing machines, dachings and other implements of that forgotten age. It is in the house where life as it might have been, sans life itself, is being showcased, providing the generations of the future with a glimpse of how we did once live.

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The house is perhaps symbolic of what we in Singapore hope for Ubin, not just an ready made escape from the brave new world we have embraced just a short boat ride away, but in its wild, undisturbed, and unmanicured state, a world where we can relive a life we have discarded.

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Ubin does of course offer potentially more than that. The authorities do seem to be committed to not only keeping it in its rustic state for our future generations, but are also taking efforts to regenerate and protect its natural environment. This along with the noises being heard on an interest to keep what is left of the island’s heritage, the efforts taken in developing environmentally friendly solutions in the provision of electrical power for the island, and the attempts to engage Singaporeans on what they would like to see of Ubin (see also Enhancing Pulau Ubin’s heritage and rustic charm), does give us hope that Ubin will not become another part of a forgotten Singapore that will be lost.

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On the subject of Pulau Ubin, the Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), hosts an annual festival in honour of the deity over 6 days this year from 12 to 17 May 2014. It is well worth a visit there to soak up an atmosphere of a traditional religious celebration in a setting that is only available on the island.

The highlights of the celebration, besides the religious ceremonies, include Teochew Opera performances on each of the first five evenings (12 to 16 May) at 7pm and one in the morning of the last day at 10 am, as well as a Getai performance on the last evening that does draw a huge crowd. Free boat rides to Ubin will also be offered during the festival evenings from 6.30 pm (to Ubin) and up to 10 pm (from Ubin). More information on this year’s festival can be found at this site.

More information on previous Getai and Teochew Opera performances on Pulau Ubin can be found at the following posts:


 





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.





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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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.






A town with a curious sounding name

3 01 2014

It was in late 1976 that I found myself moving to the Ang Mo Kio New Town. Built as part of a huge wave of public housing developments that took place in the mid-1970s, Ang Mo Kio located just north of then canalised Kallang River, and the huge cemetery at Peck San Theng (now Bishan), took its name from the surrounding area.

A window into a world I once knew. Ang Mo Kio was my third home to which I moved to in 1976. The area in the photograph is the car park in front of Block 217 which started life as a the first temporary bus terminal in Ang Mo Kio  from which I caught bus service number 166 to get to school.

A window into a world I once knew. Ang Mo Kio was my third home to which I moved to in 1976. The area in the photograph is the car park in front of Block 217 which started life as a the first temporary bus terminal in Ang Mo Kio from which I caught bus service number 166 to get to school.

The rather curious sounding name did fuel much speculation and debate amongst the early residents of the new town as to what its origins were. Explanations ranged from the plausible to the seemingly improbably, a common factor was that it was a Hokkien term. Many argued that it meant evolved from a similar sounding Hokkien term that meant “red tomato”, with suggestions that it might be a reference to an “ang mo” bridge (kio), not far behind.

HDB notice regarding the renaming of roads in 1977. Prior to that, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 would have referred to as Avenue 1, Ang Mo Kio.

HDB notice regarding the renaming of roads in 1977. Prior to that, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 would have referred to as Avenue 1, Ang Mo Kio.

“Ang mo” in Hokkien is of course a term that is commonly used in Singapore and in Malaysia to describe Caucasians. The term does have its origins in 16th or 17th century Fujian province, when references to the fair hair (ang mo translates to “red hair”) of hitherto unseen and unheard of new arrivals from distant shores, came to be used  in the absence of a non-existent proper word. The “ang mo”, it was though in the case of the “ang mo” bridge being a reference to an Englishman by the name of John Turnbull Thomson, the Government Surveyor who gave his name to Thomson Road (or Englishmen in general), who was credited with putting up a proper bridge (or bridges) across the Kallang River. Along with these, the National Heritage Board (NHB) in its heritage guide for Ang Mo Kio, does add another twist with regard to what the “ang mo” might have been a reference to:

A more plausible explanation was given by Douglas Hiorns, former General Manager of Bukit Sembawang Estates (1948-1995). According to Hiorns, there were two key tracks crossing Ang Mo Kio, an area with large expanses of swamps and tributaries of rivers running through it. Bridges carrying the tracks over the waterways gained a local importance as a result. In the north, a wooden bridge carried Jalan Hwi Yoh over Sungei Tongkang and was locally called pang kio, meaning “wooden bridge” in Hokkien. The bridge carrying Cheng San Road over the tributary of Kallang River was made of concrete, a material commonly referred to as ang mo he or “Western ash” in Hokkien. As such the area acquired the name “Ang Mo Kio”.

A 1861 British Admiralty Nautical Chart. Early maps of modern Singapore show an area close to where Ang Mo Kio today is named 'Amokiah' or 'Amokia'.

A 1861 British Admiralty Nautical Chart. Early maps of modern Singapore show an area close to where Ang Mo Kio today is named ‘Amokiah’ or ‘Amokia’ (click to enlarge).

To add to the confusion over the origins of the name, old maps and references to the area suggest that the name might after all have little to do with bridges, identifying an area close to where present day Ang Mo Kio is, as “Amokia” or “Amokiah”. While the British did have some difficultly in the Anglicisation of local place names, a suggestion that I did hear more recently was that the “kia” could indeed have been correctly Anglicised. The suggestion (attributed to a local cartographer) is that “kia” which can translate into “frightened” or “afraid” in Hokkien, refers to an incident in which J. T. Thomson on a survey in what would have been a wooded area, had taken fright at an unexpected appearance made by a tiger.

A Land Office newspaper advertisement offering plots in 'Amo Kia' for sale.

A Land Office newspaper advertisement offering plots in ‘Amo Kia’ for sale.

Except for a small pockets of trees and a cluster close to Mayflower Garden, it wasn’t a forest of trees but one of concrete structures that the new residents were to encounter in 1976 – and there certainly were no tigers and wild the new Ang Mo Kio certainly was not. Living in the new town in its early days, did however have one feeling very much like it was the wilderness one was living in, especially for my having gotten spoiled by the convenience that Toa Payoh, my previous home had offered.

An aerail view of Ang Mo Kio in the early 1980s, showing the early part of it in the foreground (photograph from a heritage marker).

An aerial view of Ang Mo Kio in the early 1980s, showing the early part of it in the foreground (photograph from a heritage marker) – click to enlarge.

Block 306 was where I had moved to, in an area as far east as lived-in Ang Mo Kio went at the end of 1976. Most of what had been completed centered around the partially completed roads in the area, which included parts of Avenue 1, Avenue 3 and Avenue 6. These were the roads that carried the new town’s traffic out via a stub of Avenue 1 to Upper Thomson Road.

A familiar sight along Upper Thomson Road on the journey on service number 166. Area shown is close to the junction of Upper Thomson Road with Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 in 1980 (photograph by Ronni Pinsler as seen on the National Archives Online catalogue http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

A familiar sight along Upper Thomson Road on the journey on service number 166. Area shown is close to the junction of Upper Thomson Road with Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 in 1980 (photograph by Ronni Pinsler as seen on the National Archives Online catalogue http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

It was out to Upper Thomson Road – then the only link to the city centre, that the few bus services then serving the new town operated along. The services included numbers 168, which was the bus to take to Orchard Road, as well as a newly introduced 166 – an important link for me in the journeys to secondary school in Bras Basah Road that I would have to then make. A Blue Arrow semi-express bus service to Shenton Way, 308, did also help me save some time on the long journey home from its last stop in the city at Waterloo Street – saving up to 20 minutes in what would usually have been a journey that often exceed one hour.

Te stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 where the temporary terminal moved to in the very late 1970s.

The stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 where the temporary terminal moved to in the very late 1970s – probably late 1978.

The row of boarding stops along Avenue 3 in the 1980s to serve the new bus terminal.

The row of boarding stops along Avenue 3 in the 1980s to serve the new bus terminal that was built in 1980.

Staying at Block 306 also made it convenient to catch the bus, as I could board it at the first temporary bus terminal , which operated in a car park just across Avenue 6 in  front of Block 217 (before it moved even closer, probably at the end of 1978, to Avenue 6). Close-by the temporary terminal at Block 215, a row of shops lined the ground floor with the corner shop lot closest to the car park occupied by a coffee shop that due to the proximity of the bus terminal, became a hang out for resting bus drivers and conductors. The coffee shop, never quite recovered when the terminal did move across Avenue 6, with the lot being taken over McDonald’s, who did for a while operate a rather quiet outlet there. NTUC Fairprice currently runs an outlet in the same lot.

The NTUC Fairprice outlet occupies a shop lot that was originally a coffee shop frequented by bus drivers and conductors in the 1970s.

The NTUC Fairprice outlet at Block 215 occupies a shop lot that was originally a coffee shop frequented by bus drivers and conductors in the 1970s.

It was also close by where the only completed neighbourhood centre (in Neighbourhood 2) was found, and where the only market that had then been opened, was. It was in one of the shops in the two storey blocks surrounding the market, that I was to visit for my first haircuts in Ang Mo Kio. That was at an Indian barber shop at Block 226E, my father and I would frequent, until the Pink Panther Malay barber shop in my neighbourhood opened.

The first Neighbourhood Centre, now known as 'Kebun Baru Mall'.

The first Neighbourhood Centre, now known as ‘Kebun Baru Mall’.

The row of shops at Block 226E as seen today.

The row of shops at Block 226E as seen today.

Besides the shops at Block 215 and at the neighbourhood centre,  there were shops closer to where I lived. These were found at the bottom of Block 307 (since demolished) across the huge open car park. Besides a bicycle shop, a clinic, and a provision shop, the row also contained the coffee shop that I would have most patronised during my nine-year stay in the area in the new town.

It was across a large open car park, a large part of which has since been built over, that a block of flats with a row of shops, Block 307, was.

It was across a large open car park, a large part of which has since been built over (left of the photograph), that a block of flats with a row of shops, Block 307, was.

In its early days, there coffee shop wasn’t much to talk about, much of the food on offer was rather forgettable – although the Fishball Noodle and the Chicken Rice was to see much improvement over time. Most of my early visits there were motivated by the large glass fronted stainless steel refrigerator (as was common in coffee shops and many provision shops in those days) – then placed right against the back wall of the coffee shop (the coffee shop was laid out as were coffee shops of old – with stalls lining the entrance and tables and chairs arranged inside). It was from the fridge that ice-cold relief was found. This took the form of bottled soft drinks that were to be poured into ice-filled plastic bags – much needed in the heat and dust that seemed to accompany the early days of the neighbourhood.

Block 306 (and 305 behind it), with a more recently added concrete plaza next to it.

Block 306 (and 305 behind it), with a more recently added concrete plaza next to it.

With the relentless pace at which the town was being developed, it was not to be long before the feeling of being in the wilderness did somewhat subside.  The completion of new roads and addition of bus services did provide more links out, although one did have to spend more time on the road given the distance of the town from the city. One road that was useful in the early days was the extension of Avenue 1 out to Lorong Chuan, completed in March 1977, not too long after I moved in. That providing a link out to Serangoon Garden, where the only NTUC Fairprice (then NTUC Welcome) supermarket in the vicinity was to be found (until the branch in Ang Mo Kio Central was opened in 1979). The completion of the road also saw it being used by hell-riders , participants in the illegal motorcycle races that was a big problem in the late 1970s, the roar of their motorcycles were sometimes heard in the dead of the night.

Avenue 1 where it meets Avenue 3, at its completion in March 1977 - the area to the right was largely occupied by the sprawling Peck San Theng cemetery (photograph: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Avenue 1 where it meets Avenue 3, at its completion in March 1977 – the area to the right was largely occupied by the sprawling Peck San Theng cemetery (photograph: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The completion of Marymount Road in August 1979 provided a faster and more direct route southwards towards the city. The construction of the road, which was to see Marymount Convent lose its original frontage along Thomson Road, took a route that cut through parts of the massive Peck San Theng cemetery – and one thing that I very vividly remember was seeing the exhumation work in progress on the part of the cemetery close to Sin Ming Estate that was just by Marymount Road – probably sometime in 1980.

The clutter of renewal in spaces where my friends and I would once have enjoyed an afternoon kicking a ball in.

The clutter of renewal in spaces where my friends and I would once have enjoyed an afternoon kicking a ball in.

With the masses that the further development of Ang Mo Kio brought in, the town took on a more impersonal feel and what there certainly wasn’t, was the sense of the community that was present in Toa Payoh – the lack of common corridors and open front doors possibly a contributory factor. There were however, open and many grassy spaces to celebrate, spaces that allowed the freedom of play, to kick a ball, and to have a run around … spaces there seem to be a lot less of these days. It did come as a shock to see that many of the spaces I played in, have since been lost to the clutter of renewal that upgrading works seem to do to a place, on a recent visit to the area.

The huge open space that provided room to breathe is now gone.

The huge open space that provided room to breathe is now gone.

Gone also, is that open space that provided breathing room between the block where I had lived in, the blocks it has since been made to face – a seemingly towering wall of concrete that has hidden that wonderful view I once did get from the bedroom window of the 16th storey flat I had lived in.

More cluttered spaces where open fields once provided the freedom to run.

More cluttered spaces where green and open fields once provided the freedom to run.

Walking around once familiar places that I now find hard to connect with, I did at least stumble upon a consolation. That came in the form of a bowl of ice-kacang, done just the way I like it and as it might have been all those years ago – a simple pleasure from what once was a much less complicated place.

One thing that I hope never changes - finding a great bowl of ice-kacang in the nighbourhood.

One thing that I hope never changes – being able to stumble upon that great bowl of ice-kacang in the changing neighbourhoods.








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