There was at Tanah Merah, an idyllic world that in the Singapore of today, would be rather difficult to imagine. k Set on a landscape, the gentle undulations seemed to blend those of a forgotten sea, except for where a set of cliffs – the larger of two from which the area derives its name, it was a most picturesque of spots and one in which many found an escape.
Caressed by the gentle breeze of the forgotten sea, Tanah Merah was where life was pretty; both for the occupants of the generously diemnsioned villas overlooking the sea, as it was for those whose humbler dwellings were marked by their thatched attap roofs.
I first met the acquaintance of Tanah Merah as a child of three. A holiday taken at a huge government bungalow my parents were guests at, was to be the start of many early childhood encounters I was to have with the area.
Plymouth, the bungalow by the sea, near the village of Ayer Gemuroh, was one of two of a similar sort. The other was called Newquay. Perched on a small elevation that had overlooked the sea, it was typical of a colonial era house, its well selected position, a testament to the knack the British had for the best locations to house their colonial administrators.
As was typical of such houses, the bungalow was raised over the ground on stilt like columns. That I suppose, not only kept the vermin out, but also allowed ventilation through the slits in the wooden floorboards to keep the house cool in the oppressive tropical heat.
The bungalow would have been handed over to the Singapore government in the transition of the island from the colony to a state in the Federation and then independence. Several in the east, where the best beaches in Singapore were, were turned into holiday bungalows. This was to the benefit of the many civil service officers, in days when holidays at home by the sea were the fashion.
The bungalow’s grassy and expansive grounds were shared with the neighbouring bungalow. A flight of stairs at its seaward end led to a terrace where benches allowed one to stare at the beach and sea beyond it. Both the beach and the sea were accessible via another flight of stairs.
From the grounds, one climbed a short flight of stairs to the raised floor of the bungalow. This brought one up to a landing that led to a well ventilated lounge and dining area. Large airy bedrooms were also spread across the bungalow’s single level. The kitchen, and what would have been rooms that served as servants’ quarters, were found on behind the bungalows at ground level.
The area around Ayer Gemuroh all was rather interesting. I would be given many views of the area from the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100 over the years that were to follow. The drives would take us from the holiday bungalows we would subsequently stay at in Mata Ikan, just southwest of Ayer Gemuroh, all the way to eastern ends of Changi Beach near Telok Paku where the waters were more pristine and also beyond which a favourite haunt of my parents, Changi Village, lay.
The drives would take us through Wing Loong Road, down the area of the cliffs near where the road ended at Tanah Merah Besar Road. Moving beyond the T-junction, the road would become the marvellous Nicoll Drive, which ran along the casuarina lined beach and the sea, taking us past among other things, a children’s home.
One of the sights to look out for during the drives would be David Marshall’s house by the sea. I was to learn much later that Marshall, who served as Singapore’s first Chief Minister upon the attainment of self-government, had the house named Tumasek and that it was where he entertained guests with his famous Sunday “curry lunches”. Marshall had set eyes on the house from a very young age and was able to purchase it only much later when its owner, a retiring accountant, wanted to sell it.
The house then seemed a wonderful sight to behold. Set high over the sea, it greeted you especially on the approach from the northeast. It was from this point that the road wound its way to Ayer Gemuroh and continued to the area where Mata Ikan was. The road moved inland from Mata Ikan towards Somapah Village. A path along the coastline would have taken one to Padang Terbakar and just beyond that to Bedok Corner
I had my first encounter with Kuda Kepang, a somewhat mystical dance of Javanese origins in which two-dimensional representations of horses are used, in passing Ayer Gemuroh on one of the drives. It was being performed in a clearing in the village for a wedding, as it would have been commonly seen in those days. Another sight from the village that would be etched in my memory is that of a group of boys walking around with their sarongs held away from their bodies by a frame. I would learn that the boys had just been circumcised and the frames, which presumably made of rattan, kept the sarongs from making painful contact with what must have been an especially tender spot.
Another description of the area has also be provided by Peter Chan, who often guest blogs on Lam Chun See’s wonderful Good Morning Yesterday blog. I am also grateful to Peter for his aerial photographs, maps and some of the photographs in this post:
When you travel down Tanah Merah Besar Road, (after the junction with Tampines Road) you go down the “valley” and up the top then down the “valley” until you reach Nicoll drive junction. There was a sand pit on the left of Tanah Merah Besar Road (just before the junction) – you see like what you find in Malaya’s tin mining open cast mining this wooden “slide”.
Once you turn into Nicoll Drive on your right was Casuarina Motel (later called Aloha Rhu Village opened in 1971) with Hawaiian waitresses dressed in grass skirts. Then next was the Singapore Handicapped Home or Cheshire Chidlren’s home. In front of those homes was a WW2 pill-box.
You would then drive to 14 milestone Nicoll Drive. On your right you see one wooden community building – PA operated I think, called Tanah Merah Holiday Camp. There is a sharp bend to the right because there was the RAF Eastern Dispersal Area, and a road straight again to the Teluk Paku Road junction.
After this junction you find government division 1 holiday bungalows (black and white type, modern bungalows also – now where I think the SIA Engineering hangers are).
Teluk Mata Ikan was accessible from Wing Loong Road (metaled road), also from David Marshall house, from which one must pass 2SIB HQ called Tanah Merah Camp, which was built in 1966, There was also access from the north through Somapah Road.
There was a kampung and mosque at Ayer Gemuroh facing a cliff. Here are some photos you might need. I have written these up in my memories book. The PA venue could be called either Tanah Merah Holiday Camp or Changi Holiday Camp. The modern bungalows during RAF era were called B & H Bungalows (Brighton & Hoove still operate similar place in south England today)”.
I suppose, beyond the descriptions provided, it would still be hard to fully appreciate what Tanah Merah was. Sadly for us and for the residents of the area, all the wonderment that a most beautiful of places provided, lives now only in our memories. That Tanah Merah, and its beautiful coast, lies in an area swallowed up by the massive land reclamation project of the early 1970s. Altering much of Singapore’s southern shores. In the case of Tanah Merah, it was to provide the land on which Changi Airport was to be built (a September 1970 news report in the Straits Times provides some information on the reclamation effort).
The reclamation brought to not just a time of magical adventures for me. It altered the lives of many who had lived and had an attachment to an area of which little evidence other than a name, is left these days. Some of the area lies under Changi Airport with Ayer Gemuroh itself, buried under Taxiway WA (which runs along Runway 02L of Changi Airport). I have included a Google Earth map below, in an attempt to identify the approximate locations of the places I have mentioned.
All I have left of the most magical of places are some photographs, many fond memories, and a deep longing to return to an area that provided me with a joy that I have never again had the experience of.