One of the places that I would always have a place in my heart for, is the Changi Village that had occupied the many weekends of my early childhood. It was a place that, like much of the Singapore that I had developed a fondness for in my childhood, exists only in the memories of those who had known it as had once been. It was a place which offered many an escape from the hustle and bustle of the expanding city, a world set far apart somehow from the rest of Singapore with a laid back attitude and a sense of calm that was starting to disappear from much of the rest of Singapore. The main street of the village was lined with the two distinctive rows of mainly zinc topped wooden shops, almost like a scene perhaps from the Wild West, offering more than an escape to some such as my mother, who often enjoyed a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll trawling through the often colourful displays of goods at the front of the shops before heading to the beach to bathe in the cool evening breeze. For many, there was the draw of chilling-out after the exertions of trawling the five-foot ways, not so much in Wild West styled saloons we might had imagined were there, but in the many chilling-out spots such as the Millie’s Coffee House, a household name in Changi Village in those days.
It would probably be hard to visualise how Changi Village might once have been without the photographs that exist, and what we do see of the remake of the village that (if we ignore the weekend crowds), still offers an escape from the concrete jungle that Singapore has become, bears little resemblance to that old laid back village. Now, four low-rise blocks of HDB flats that replaced the wooden shacks in the mid 1970s dominate the village. Despite the more urban feel that Changi Village now exudes, it is still for many, a place to chill-out, with the many food and beverage outlets and the ever popular hawker centre a big draw. There are also those little reminders of the good old days when the village was a hub of activity being a destination for the many RAF servicemen and their families stationed at the airbase in Changi. Some of the shops that had existed then are still present in one form or another. There are also similar shops that existed as before, offering supplies for the beach or for a spot of fishing, set amongst the new world shops such as the convenience stores that are more commonly seen these days, and the sight of inflatable floats and toys colouring the shop fronts, much as they did in the days gone by still greet the visitor today.
The memories that I have of the village come from my frequent trips there with my parents, and besides the lazy Sunday afternoon strolls, there were also many stopovers to pick up supplies for a beach picnic or the odd butterfly net with which we could harvest the fruits of the sea that the seaweed, sea cucumber and starfish decorated sandy seabed offered those who did not mind walking with a soggy pair of sneakers. On several occasions, trips there would have been on the excursions from 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 Airport to be built. There are still some of the souvenirs of the strolls, which, in the form of the photo albums that hold some memories of not just my days in the idyllic coastline, but also of much of my childhood, are some of my most treasured possessions.
One of the shops that I remember – possibly for the unusual name it had, was a shop named “L Gee Lak” – as kids, some of the children of my parents friends with whom we sometimes went on picnics with and I would often poke fun at the name, referring to the shop as “Lembu Gila“, Malay for “Mad Cow” – having one particular memory of sitting in the back seat of a yellow Saab 96 that one of the parents owned that was parked right in front of the shop and laughing along to the chorus of “Lembu Gila” that rang out from my companions seated beside me. There were also quite a number of shops that offered tailoring services as well – there would have been a big demand for such from the members of the British Forces that frequented the village … there was one that I remember – with a signboard that read “Singh Tailor” and at the bottom of the signboard, there were the words “Proprietor: Baboo Singh”. The tailor shop later moved into one of the shop units at the foot of the HDB flats just opposite the popular Changi Village hawker, with a signboard that till today still reads “Singh Tailor” – which of late has the word “Proprietor: Baboo Singh” removed.
Another thing that gave the village of old its distinct character were some of the older buildings around – the Changi Cinema, a 500 seat old style village cinema which stood at the site of the present bus terminus. Another was the old police station, at the junction of Lorong Bekukong and what was Upper Changi Road, one that had a distinct country flavour which served as a gateway to another world that lay to the north of the village – an exclusive area where senior civil servants holidayed at which would have only been accessible with a visit to the station, where one could get a pass to enter the restricted area by sitting across a wooden counter or desk from a police officer to whom the identity card of the person intending to make that visit would have to be surrendered. What lay beyond a fence that restricted access across Netheravon Road was certainly another world, maybe not quite the fairy land that the names of one of the places within the area, Fairy Point, would suggest, but one that was a wonderful world nonetheless and one that I will certainly touch on in a future post.