Once Tanah Merah …

16 08 2010

There was at Tanah Merah, an idyllic world that in the Singapore of today, would be rather difficult to imagine. Set on a landscape on which 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 – stood, 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.

Life was very much a beach for me, spending magical holidays by the sea in the Tanah Merah of old!

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.

The grounds of the bungalows at Tanah Merah, the Plymouth, at which I stayed at in Dec 1967 can be seen in the background.

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 entrance doorway of the Plymouth was accessible through a short flight of stairs.

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 expansive grounds where the bungalows were located was on a hillock close to Kampong Ayer Gemuruh that overlooked the sea.

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.

Map of the Kampong Ayer Gemuruh area showing the location of the Plymouth and Newquay (map source: Peter Chan).

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.

Village scene, Kampong Ayer Gemuruh, 1963 (source: Peter Chan who obtained this photograph through a British guy whose father had worked in RAF Changi in the 1960s).

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.

Aerial view of the coastline at the Tanah Merah area in 1964, close to the junction of Wing Loong Road with Tanah Merah Besar Road showing the “white cliffs” (source: Peter Chan).

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.

Aerial view of the coastline at the Tanah Merah area in 1964, showing also Wing Loong Road (source: Peter Chan).

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)”.

The gateway to Tanah Merah. The junction of Tanah Marah Beasr Road, Changi Road and Tampines Road. The watch tower was a landmark in the area and was to watch over the perimeter fence around the piece of land in the background where prisoners from Changi Prison would be put to work (source: Peter Chan).

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).

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline …

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.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

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.


Tanah Merah Besar, 1958, posted by Graham Collins on Facebook.




17 responses

17 08 2010
Daily SG: 17 Aug 2010 « The Singapore Daily

[…] of sites of tragedy and symbols of their causes, and bigotry – The Long and Winding Road: The lost idyllic coastline of Tanah Merah – Times of My Life: Holland Water – Hor Lan […]

19 08 2010

i think you might like the lost coast– it’s still around today, and accessible despite the fences! cross owl river and then the lalang fields– you’ll reach hyundai, murex delta and ghost bay. the hike is about 10km long but worth it– singapore still has many beautiful wild places.

19 08 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks fernfreak for the tip … where is this area exactly? Not one of those with red signs I hope … 🙂

20 08 2010

i’d appreciate it if this could be kept private, so that the area can be preserved from too much traffic.

you can use the email address included with this comment to get to a public facebook page: the album pictures there may help you determine where the area is, or you can message me using the same address for more detailed directions.

20 08 2010
The wondering wanderer

Ok thanks! 🙂

20 08 2010

The government bungalows at Wing Loong Road was demolished the last time I stayed with my former HDB colleagues there.

Lots of fun there with mahjong games, fishing, BBQ and the nostalgic memories of the place.

Nice blog, accompanied with your memorable childhood photos. Thanks Jerome.

20 08 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks James, when did you stay there with your HDB colleagues? Must have been a lot of fun! 😀

21 08 2010
Weekly Roundup: Week 34 « The Singapore Daily

[…] of sites of tragedy and symbols of their causes, and bigotry – The Long and Winding Road: The lost idyllic coastline of Tanah Merah – Times of My Life: Holland Water – Hor Lan Shui – Tan Kin Lian’s Blog: The good and bad of […]

29 10 2010
The Changi Village that I loved « The Long and Winding Road

[…] the holiday bungalows that my parents often stayed at during the school holidays at Mata Ikan and Tanah Merah before the idyllic coastline they were set in was lost to land reclamation that allowed Changi […]

9 11 2010
No longer the land that Fairy Tales are made of … « The Long and Winding Road

[…] other civil servants were deprived of the use of the wonderful holiday bungalows along the idyllic Tanah Merah and Mata Ikan coast that lay to the south east of Changi Beach, and many of the former quarters […]

26 11 2011

Telok Paku Bungalows had green, green lawn. Fronting the sandy white beach, one can catch the waves by your feet. When the tides were low, the whole catchment area were full of sea cucumbers and numerous species of sea-shells.

It turned magical on a full moon night. The darkened sea reflecting the serene moon light with the palm trees swaying, gently. The sound of the sea, serenading la-la-bye…….


26 11 2011

Mata Ikan Chalets were haunted. We heard door opening, footsteps leading to the kitchen, opening the fridge in the middle of the night. There were errie vibes that we did not know what to make out off. We simply went to bed quickly and cut our conversations short. When we woke up, we questioned our classmates if they were the one going to the kitchen; they admitted that they knew and have heard about the place being spooky, had gone to bed early and had abstained from leaving their room at night. That was in 1968 while I was 16.

9 09 2016
Eric tan

It was very well written. I live near junction of Somapah Road n Windsor Dr. It lead all the way to Ayer Gurmeroh.

12 05 2017

I have never been to Kampong Ayer Gemuruh… but I have heard so much about the place from my grandmother and father who lived there for a significant part of their lives. They have both passed on and I miss hearing stories from them. 😦 I stumbled upon your blog about Kampong Ayer Gemuruh and its surrounding area. I feel so happy to see some pictures, thus putting some vision to the stories that were told to me. I also found out that I am now living around the same area! It also brought a tear to my eye remembering my loved ones. I was told that David Marshall was such a good man, allowing the kampong kids (my father and his friends) to play within his villa compound and climb his coconut trees. 😀

26 01 2020
mark Roche

Thanks for this memory.

23 05 2021

I live at that area now. It is nice to see old pictures of the place I’m living at now

14 04 2023
Ann Trindade

I read this with some nostalgia. My late husband and I were guests at David and Jean Marshall ‘s beautiful house and enjoyed swimming in the sea with our children and others. Then back along the palm fringed road to the University of Singapore’s staff housing..ours was in Kheam Hock road at one point. Bedok corner was another magical place..and Siglap was the Procure of the devoted French missionary priests who contributed so much to the church of Singapore. Happy memories…

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