As trivial as a fence may appear, a fence does have a place in the memories I have of my childhood. It is a fence that I now pass on the drive to work, which for a while seemed to deserve no more than a cursory glance at, part of the uninspiring landscape along the stretch of Tampines Road which is visible from the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE). The KPE is the latest addition to the Singapore’s impressive expressway network, which should really make travelling across Singapore a breeze.
All too frequently, though, driving along the KPE, as with many of the other expressways, is hardly a breeze, and one wonders if it would soon join the ranks of the “every road pay” network. “Every road pay” is of course what many locals use to refer to Electronic Road Pricing or ERP. It was on one of these crawls that I allowed my thoughts to drift as I surveyed the scene before me, and drift it did, as I was soon back in the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100, peering out of the open window at the fence.
For me, the fence, which marks the northern boundary of Paya Lebar Airbase (it was then the Paya Lebar International Airport), had served as a marker of sorts on the frequent long drives my father took along Tampines Road. Looking out for the fence helped to break the monotony of what seemed a long and boring journey, a journey that I willingly partook in for the reward that lay at the end of it, be it a fun day at the beach or wandering around the old Changi Village.
The journey on Tampines Road would start with a right turn from Upper Serangoon Road, near the sixth milestone, just after the sixth mile market, an area my mother had fond memories of, having spent a part of her childhood in. She would never fail to mention a thing or two about her memories as my father turned into Tampines Road, about which my father would sometimes tease her about. The start of Tampines Road seemed to always be rather busy, as we followed the mini-convoys of rubbish trucks on their way to the Lorong Halus landfill.
The first sight of the fence along the road was the precursor to the start of a meandering path eastwards through what was Singapore’s longest road. It was a path that would start with a large bend that brought us past a cluster of houses at Jalan Telawi, seemingly the last sighting of civilisation before we descended into the greener, narrower and quieter section of the road, passing by villages and fishing ponds … and of course Elias Road – the gateway to Pasir Ris beach.
Immersed in the musings of a time when journeys on roads less travelled could only be undertaken at a pace far slower than what we are used to these day, my mind drifted off to the many journeys of my childhood along the other roads less travelled: Jurong, Choa Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang, Neo Tiew, Punggol, and Sembawang Roads to name a few. While many of these roads have been swallowed up or disfigured by redevelopment, a few remnants of the old stretches of these roads still remains, very much as how it had must have been, albeit devoid of the life the roads were built to sustain. These remnants sit silent and forgotten, discarded for the numerous highways that have replaced them to enable the sheer volume of today’s traffic to be carried.
The journeys on these roads always seemed to take forever. They were never journeys that were taken for the love of a long drive, but usually for the incentive that the destination provided. The ones to some of the “ends” of the island was usually reward with a feast of seafood in one of those wooden shacks that lay at the end of the road where land met the sea. Punggol and Tuas (accessible from Jurong Road) Roads featured these popular old style seafood restaurants where utensils and teacups would be brought to the table in a bowl of steaming hot water. There would of course be the customary bowl of water with lime cut in half bobbing up and down on the surface of the water. These were meant to clean one’s fingers as one fiddled with the delicious mess of gravy coated crabs and prawns that were served. The thought of this brings to mind a story that a friend of my father’s related. He had brought a foreign visitor to one of these restaurants and on seeing the bowl of water place on the table, the visitor prompted squeezed the lime in the bowl of water and emptied the contents of the bowl into his mouth, believing that it was a refreshment of sorts!
On occasion, the journey to Tuas would involve seafood harvested straight from the sea, in the glow of camphor lamps – the smell of which still lingers in my memory. This wasn’t a journey that my mother was particularly fond of, as it often meant a drive home in the wee hours of the morning, past a shadowy part of the old Jurong Road where the rather spooky looking Bulim cemetery always seemed to leap out at you. This was the road that would go through what would now be Bukit Batok housing estate, to the junction with Upper Bukit Timah Road. My mother would always heave a sigh of relief at he sight of Bukit Timah Fire Station and the huge Green Spot bottle at the entrance of the Amoy Canning factory, as this signified our the re-entrance to civilisation.
Jurong Road would be the road the buses took on the many school excursions of my primary school days. Even then, the journeys seemed to take forever. I would look out for the distinctive JTC flats with the louvered windows of their exteriors at the junction of Jurong and Upper Jurong Roads, Jalan Bahar, and Jalan Boon Lay, where HDB flats seemed to feature common corridors, as it meant the journey would be drawing to its close. The turn left along Jalan Boon Lay would always be greeted with anticipation by my classmates, for near the end of the road, a whiff of chocolate would always greet us as we passed the Van Houten chocolate factory as we made our way along what seemed like a grand avenue lined with trees on the wide central divider.
What is nice to know is that there are a few remnants of the narrow roads less travelled that remain, some sitting beside their modern replacements which carry a much heavier volume of traffic to and from the huge densely populated public housing estates, constructed where there were once farms and villages. They serve as a reminder of the journeys that I have taken in my childhood some of which I have lasting impressions of.