Windows into Singapore: juxtapositions of time

27 03 2014

A view out of the window from the POD atop the National Library building, out towards what would once have been an almost clear view of the sea off the promenade that ran along Nicoll Highway.

JeromeLim 277A2967

Part of what has been a landmark along Beach Road since its completion in 1976, Shaw Towers, can be seen on the right of the photograph. Built over a site that had previously been occupied by the Alhambra and Marborough cinemas, the 35 floor Shaw Towers was at the point of its completion, the tallest kid on the block at Beach Road. It was also the first building in Singapore to house two cinemas, Prince and Jade, built in a decade when cinema going took-off in Singapore. Prince was at its opening, the largest cinema in Singapore with its 1952 seats. Prince occupied the second to the seventh floors of one corner of the building’s podium. Its screen, at 28 metres wide, was the widest in the Far East. Jade was to provide a more intimate setting, holding less than half the crowd Prince would have held. The cinemas were converted in the late 1980s to cineplexes – the first multi-screen cinemas to make an appearance in Singapore.

A close up of the boats in the Kallang Basin close to Nicoll Highway (posted in Facebook group, On a Little Street in Singapore).

Nicoll Highway, Singapore’s first highway, did once run along the coast right behind Shaw Towers. Completed in 1956 - after the closure of Kallang Airport permitted a much needed link to be built along the coast, it provided an artery to take vehicular traffic from and to the populated eastern coast into and out of the city. Offering a view of the sea and the scatter of boats up to the early 1970s,  a drive today provides a view of a scattering of trees and isolated structures that herald the arrival of a brand new world - where the wooded patch is in the foreground of the first photograph.

Nicoll Highway, the Merdeka Bridge, Beach Road and the Kallang Basin, 1967 – before the 1970s land reclamation (posted in Facebook group, On a Little Street in Singapore).

A view down Nicoll Highway. A new development South Beach is seen rising beyond Shaw Tower.

A view down Nicoll Highway. A new development South Beach is seen rising beyond Shaw Towers.

Another view down Nicoll Highway during peak hour.

Another view down Nicoll Highway during peak hour.

The body of water beyond which we can see the Benjamin Sheares Bridge rising, is itself one that has seen a significant change. Where it once was the sea, it now is a body of fresh water, forming a part of the huge Marina Reservoir, having been cut-off from the sea by land reclamation and the construction of the Marina Barrage. The barrage, closes up the channel between Marina East and Marina South, Marina East being land reclaimed off Tanjong Rhu, a cape once referred to as a “curious ridge of sand” on which shipyards, the charcoal trade and a flour mill had once featured.

An advertisement for Khong Guan Flour Mills. The grain storage silos once dominated a landscape at Tanjong Rhu now dominated by condominiums.

An advertisement for Khong Guan Flour Mills. The grain storage silos once dominated a landscape at Tanjong Rhu now dominated by condominiums.

A more recent landmark on Beach Road, the 41-storey The Concourse and a view toward Tanjong Rhu beyond it.

A more recent landmark on Beach Road, the 41-storey The Concourse and a view toward Tanjong Rhu beyond it.

Reclaimed land by Nicoll Highway, the Kallang Basin area of Marina Reservoir and Tanjong Rhu beyond it.

Reclaimed land by Nicoll Highway, the Kallang Basin area of Marina Reservoir and the Marina South area beyond it.

It is at Tanjong Rhu, where Singapore first million-dollar condominium units were sold, that the eastern end of the iconic 1.8 km long Benjamin Sheares Bridge comes down to earth. Opened to traffic on 26 September 1981, it provided the final link for a coastal highway that had been built to take traffic around and not through the city centre, the planning for which went back to the end of the 1960s (see The Making of Marina Bay).

Land reclamation in the Kallang Basin / Tanjong Rhu area in 1973 (posted in Facebook group On a Little Street in Singapore).

This stretch of that coastal highway, East Coast Parkway (ECP), did take up much of the traffic that was being carried on what was becoming an increasingly congested Nicoll Highway that had been built some 25 years before it. Now, some 32 years later, as with the highway it took traffic away from, it sees its role taken up in a similar fashion by a new highway, the Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE). Built at the cost of S$4.3-billion, the 5 kilometre MCE runs mostly underground and partly under the sea and see the series of coastal highways move with the shifting of the coastline. The MCE features a 3.6 km tunnel and has a 420 metre stretch that runs under the sea.

Tanjong Rhu and the Benjamin Sheares Bridge.

Tanjong Rhu and the Benjamin Sheares Bridge.

The expressway, which opened to traffic on 29 December 2013, was built so as to remove the constraints that the ECP, in running right smack through the centre of Marina South, had placed on the development of Singapore’s new downtown (the expansion of the city to Marina South that was really an afterthought, having come after urban planners had realised the potential that land, which had initially been reclaimed for the construction of the ECP, had in providing much needed space for the expansion of the city). The availability of new and undeveloped land through reclamation did allow parts of old Singapore slated for redevelopment, to be spared the wreckers’ ball.

A view over the Marina Reservoir and Marina East, with the Benjamin Sheares Bridge seen to the left of the capsule.

A view over the Marina Reservoir and Marina East, with the Benjamin Sheares Bridge seen to the left of the capsule.

The deceptively blue waters in the first photograph’s background, is that of the Eastern Anchorage. It is at the anchorage that ships lie patiently in wait, far removed from the frenzy at the wharves of what is one of the world’s busiest ports. It is one place in Singapore where time does seem to stand very still, at least for now. Time doesn’t of course seem to stand very still in a Singapore constantly on the move, and time will certainly bring change to shape of the distribution of the shipping infrastructure along the coast- with the journey to west for the city shipping terminals, at Keppel, Pulau Brani and Tanjong Pagar, due to completed by 2030.

The Eastern Anchorage.

The Eastern Anchorage – where time does seem to stand still.

There is of course the potential that developments away from Singapore has for influencing change. One possible game-changing development we in Singapore are keeping our eyes on is the possibility that of a dream long held by Thailand, the cutting of a shipping canal through the Isthmus of Kra, coming true. If a recent report, purportedly from the Chinese media, is to be believed, work is already starting. The cutting of the so-called Kra Canal is an idea that was first mooted back in the late 17th Century (see: How a Thai Canal Could Transform Southeast Asia on http://thediplomat.com) and talk of building it does crop up from time to time – the effort required and the associated costs in recent times serving as a huge deterrent. If built, the canal would save shipping a 1,500 nautical mile journey through the Straits of Malacca and around Singapore.

The proposed canal does have the potential to undermine Singapore’s so far unchallenged strategic position with regards to shipping, although it would probably take a lot more than a canal to do that. In the meantime, it is the change that is driven within that we will see add to another area in Singapore in which change does seem to always be a constant.





The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay

25 11 2012

Taking a walk by the waterfront by the Singapore Indoor Stadium these days, it would be hard to imagine a time not so long ago when looking across to Tanjong Rhu, a very different scene would have greeted one’s eyes. Where million dollar condominium units housed in cream coloured blocks now dominate the view across, the scene a quarter of a century ago would have been one of wooden boats, wooden jetties, slipways and drab looking structures running along a body of water the surface of which would have been littered not just by rubbish that had found its way into the three rivers that flowed into the basin, but also by carcasses of dead animals that floated down from the many farms that has once been located upstream.

Tanjong Rhu (left), seen across the Kallang Basin today.

Tanjong Rhu translates from Malay into the Cape of Casuarina (Trees). Once described as a “curious ridge of sand which runs across from Katong to Kallang Bay”, its tip, known as “Sandy Point” has had a long association with the boat building and repair trade, having been an area designated for the trade by Sir Stamford Raffles as far back as 1822, with Captain Flint being the first to set a company to do that in the same year. By the 1850s, the trade was already well established around Sandy Point and the trade continued to thrive in the area even after the first graving dock was constructed in New Harbour (Keppel Harbour) in 1859. Over the years, among the business that found their way to Sandy Point were the well established names such as British boatbuilder J I Thornycroft which set up in 1923 and United Engineers. Thornycroft became Vosper Thornycroft in 1967 following the 1966 merger of the parent company with Vosper Limited in the UK. Vosper Thornycroft’s Singapore operations in turn merged with United Engineer’s in 1967. The yard unfortunately got into financial difficulties due to the mid 1980s recession and went into voluntary liquidation in early 1986.

The end of Tanjong Rhu was home to several shipyards including Vosper Thornycroft (seen here), the parent company of which is an established builder of Naval craft in the UK and Singapore Slipway (which became Keppel Singmarine), established as far back as 1887.

A slipway of a boatyard on the Geylang River

A well established organisation involved in shipbuilding still around that can trace its history to Sandy Point is the newbulding arm of Keppel Corporation, Keppel Singmarine. The subsidiary of what is now Keppel Offshore and Marine is a merger of Singmarine and Singapore Slipway. It was Singapore Slipway that had been established at Sandy Point in 1887 when a group of merchants bought William Heard and partner Campbell Heard and Co’s slipway which was set up earlier in the decade and formed the Slipway and Engineering Company. Keppel Singmarine’s yard operated at Tanjong Rhu until the early 1990s.

A boat littered Kallang Basin in 1973 at the time of the completion of the National Stadium (Singapore Sports Council Photo). Land reclamation along the Nicoll Highway promenade can be clearly seen.

Besides the shipyards, another area of Tanjong Rhu a short distance away from its tip that wasn’t very pretty was at the area known as Kampong Arang. That had been an area that was dominated by wooden jetties, used by charcoal traders to offload charcoal from tongkangs (wooden lighters) coming in from Indonesia and Thailand. The charcoal trade was established in the area in 1954 when charcoal traders were uprooted from the waterfront along the reclaimed land south of Beach Road to allow for the construction of Merdeka Bridge and the Nicoll Highway. The once thriving charcoal trade operated at Tanjong Rhu up until January 1987 when the trade was already in decline. At its height in the late 1950s, as many as 300 tongkangs plied between the two countries and Tanjong Rhu, falling to 60 by the time the 1970s had arrived when demand fell as many households had by then already switched to using gas and electric stoves. The traders were relocated to Lorong Halus (only 15 of the 40 that operated at Tanjong Rhu continued at Lorong Halus with demand mainly from the reexport of charcoal than from the local market) in early 1987 at the tail end of the decade long Kallang Basin cleanup efforts.

Another view of Kallang Basin and Tanjong Rhu today.

Beyond the cleanup efforts, the face of Tanjong Rhu has also been altered by the land reclamation south of the cape which has increased its land mass. The land reclamation, started in the early 1970s, was originally intended to allow for the construction of the East Coast Parkway and was further expanded to give the area now referred to as Marina East – at the tip of which the Marina Barrage now closes the channel between it and Marina South which has turned Marina Bay and the Kallang Basin into a huge reserve of a much needed resource, fresh water. The shifting out of the trades from the area were complete by the time the mid 1990s had arrived and allowed much of the northern waterfront area of Tanjong Rhu to be developed into a residential area and the basin into a recreational area that it is today.

[see also: Where slipways once lined the muddy banks of the Geylang River: Jalan Benaan Kapal]





Reflections on Old Kallang Airport (Singapore Biennale 2011)

18 03 2011

[Do note that if you are planning a visit to the Biennale at Old Kallang Airport, the entrance is at Stadium Link, off Geylang Road, a short walk away from Kallang MRT Station. A link to a Google Map with the specific location of the entrance can be found at the end of this post].


Glancing at the headline of yesterday’s article on page 2 of the Life section of the Straits Times, which read “Biennale’s Kallang site not ideal. Visitors say that Old Kallang Airport, one of four venues for the art event, is difficult to get to and very stuffy”, and the lack of interest that is apparent at the venue so far with the exception of Saturday’s Open House Opening Party, one certainly can’t help but have a feeling that the choice of the site of the Singapore’s first civil airport, Old Kallang Airport, wasn’t a good one. I for one, did not mind the absence of a crowd, as that provided me with an opportunity to explore the marked historic site at leisure taking in as much as I could, grateful for the opportunity to explore buildings that I had previously only glanced at from behind a fence. In walking around, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a brilliant idea to do so, not just from the perspective of providing the public access to what had for long otherwise been a closed-off site, but also that the site was ideal for such an event, providing the spatial requirements required that does not exist in the confines of the museum buildings and sites in the city centre. Yes, maybe the site does seem a world away from the convenience of the city, but it isn’t really too far away and readily accessible via public transport, with the Kallang MRT station being a short enough walk away from the entrance to the site. Perhaps what is lacking isn’t the convenience that some have voiced their opinions about, but the information that the public needs to know.

The sign at the entrance of Old Kallang Airport.

The entrance of Old Kallang Airport.

I guess I am one for old places, especially the few that reamin that I can identify in some way from the childhood I had in a Singapore time has erased. The distinctive terminal building of the old airport with its control tower, which by the time I arrived in the world, was used by the People’s Association (PA) as its headquarters, had always been one that I had associated with Kallang and the Nicoll Highway, rising on the left of the east bound carriageway of Singapore’s first highway built after the airport had ceased operations. That would be the approach to the old Guillemard Circus and the wonderful neon signs that I somehow associate with the roundabout. There were many times that I had passed the building on foot as well, cutting on the side of it through from Kallang Road on the way to the National Stadium to catch a match or in the two months that I would have walked by on an almost daily basis on the way to Jalan Bennan Kapal. The tower adorned with the rings of the PA’s logo, had always caught my eye, rising somewhat defiantly and proudly to remind us of its past as Singapore’s first civil airport all those years back.

The distinctive terminal building which is a landmark in the area.

Another view of the terminal building.

The entrance gate to the terminal building.

Perhaps the inspiration for this set of photographs ... a work on display in the terminal building.

The reminders of its previous role had been everywhere, with names such as “Old Airport Road” and Dakota Crescent around. So even with me not having seen it used as an airport, I had been aware of it since I could remember … The airport had I was to discover, was built as an airfield on the site of land reclaimed from the swampy Kallang Basin in 1937 at the cost of S$9 million. It was opened very grandly by the then Govenor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas, who flew in from Seletar for the occasion with some 70 aircraft there to mark the occasion. The location next to the Kallang Basin proved useful as it also allowed seaplanes to land. It was used by the Japanese who built a paved runway during the occupation, and refurbished by the British on their return. And although there were plans to expand and upgrade the airport the the end of the 1940s and early 1950s, it was thought that effort involved would prove too costly and Kallang was abandoned for a new inetrnational airport at Paya Lebar. Paya Lebar started operations in 1955 and that saw the last of Kallang as a civil airport, with the PA moving into the site in 1960. On the evidence of old photographs, the hangars were used by the Public Works Department (PWD) after the airport closed. The bulk of the location of the main runway was then transformed into Kallang Park one which the Oasis Restaurant, Wonderland Amusement Park and later the National Stadium, Indoor Stadium and Kallang Leisuredrome was built.

The main hangar next to the West Block.

The West Block and the main hangar off the window of the terminal building.

A smaller hangar, once used as a second hand car showroom.

An auxiliary building.

Another view of the smaller hangar.

It was certainly nice to walk around the old site and reflect on this, and hence the theme of this post … much of the old airport grounds that are left have been left in not so much its original state, but in a state that perhaps the PA had left them in – which I thought wonderfully complemented the exhibits. That also meant a lot of the wear and tear was evident from not just the use of the buildings by the PA, but the hangars by used car dealers at some point in time – I remember seeing them still at the end of the 1990s passing by after a concert at the Indoor Stadium. That provided me with an alternative view of the buildings – reflected off puddles of water and off windows and mirrors. I certainly did not get enough of it on the two occasions that I visited and I will certainly return for more.

A Toast Box cafe set up in one of the smaller hangars.

The side of a hangar.

The roof of the smaller hangar.

The main hangar.

Ventilation openings on the side of the main hangar.

The inside of the main hangar.

Roof of the main hangar.

Windows on the side of the main hangar.

Windows on the side of the main hangar.

Some of the auxiliary buildings on the premises - I understand that these were used by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra in the 1990s.

A newer auxiliary building ... perhaps added in the 1950s as an expanded air traffic control centre.

A peek under a marquee.

Another view of the terminal building and an auxiliary building.

A reflection of the East Block on a mirror mounted on an auxiliary building.

A last look ....

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What’s to become of Old Kallang Airport? Thankfully, we should see that it is conserved for our future generations – it would be nice to see it turned into some kind of aviation museum though:

URA Letter to the Strait Times, 5 Mar 2010

URA has plans for old Kallang Airport site

I THANK Mr Edwin Pang for his Forum Online letter last Friday, 'Turn site into civil aviation heritage centre'.

The former Kallang Airport is located within Kallang Riverside, which is envisioned to be a new lifestyle hub at the fringe of the city area under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) 2008 Master Plan.

The former Kallang Airport passenger terminal building with its distinctive art deco structure, as well as the office buildings, former hangar, Old Airport Square and other historical structures, was designated a heritage area and conserved in 2008 to preserve memories while allowing for a new lease of life.

In future, they will be adapted to new uses as part of a future development centred on the conserved Old Airport Square, offering a wide range of lifestyle, entertainment and retail facilities.

In January, the Singapore Biennale committee announced that it was considering the former Kallang Airport as a venue for the festival next year. URA and the Singapore Land Authority are glad that the artistic community has found heritage buildings to be suitable venues for contemporary art events. Past editions of the Biennale were also held in heritage environments.

The synergy between heritage buildings and contemporary arts is useful in bringing the awareness of our conservation buildings to the wider public and helps to endear our heritage buildings to Singaporeans.

Hwang Yu-Ning (Ms)
Group Director (Physical Planning)
Urban Redevelopment Authority


Getting to Old Kallang Airport:

The entrance to Old Kallang Airport is located at Stadium Link, off Geylang Road and is a ten minute walk from Kallang MRT Station. Please click on this link for the specific location.









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