The Tunnel

15 06 2012

In a part of Singapore where the remnants of an old world finds itself cloaked in the garments of the new, lies a relic that even in the new garment that it wears, is one in which I am often reminded of halcyon days that accompanied what is now a lost childhood. The relic, a now underused and largely ignored pedestrian underpass, is one that I am well acquainted with from those days, days when family outings often involved visits to the sea shore to enjoy the cool of the evening breeze. The Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk, as Esplanade Park was more commonly referred to then, was a popular choice with my parents. Its stone benches provided a wonderful place to sit and enjoy the breeze, as well as a vantage from where we could watch the dance of lights, flickering lights of the ships in the harbour that coloured the darkness for as far as the eye could see.

The pedestrian underpass under Connaught Drive today – corrugated metal sheathing once lined its walls.

I had always looked forward to visiting the Esplanade. It wasn’t just for the sights it offered and the cool evening breeze, but also where there was chendol (a sinful dessert made with shaved iced, coconut milk, bits of green jelly shaped like worms and sweetened with palm sugar) to die for which came from a semi-circular food centre located close to where the Stamford Canal spilled into the sea. There were also the itinerant vendors to look forward to – the kacang putih seller with a table load of nut filled canisters balanced on his head and the balloon vendor who held up a colourful bunch of balloons that in the days when helium filled balloons were rare, were air-filled and held up by a long tubular balloon. It was however not the chendol or the vendors that would most interest me, but the underpass under Connaught Drive which my sister and I would refer to as ‘the tunnel’, a passage through which was always necessary to take us from Empress Place where my father would leave his car to the Esplanade. I would never fail to take the opportunity to stamp my feet as I passed through it, not in a show of temper, but to hear the echoes of the sound it made that bounced off the corrugated metal sheathing that had then lined the walls of the tunnel.

Singapore’s first overhead bridge in Collyer Quay, opened a month and a half after the underpass at Connaught Drive (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The tunnel, I have discovered, was completed in the days when Singapore was a part of its now northern neighbours. It was built to ease the flow of traffic which in stopping to allow pedestrians to cross, was reported to have backed-up all the way to the Merdeka Bridge. Those were days when Connaught Drive served as a main thoroughfare that took traffic (reportedly some 4,200 vehicles and hour at its peak) from Nicoll Highway into the commercial heart of the city. Built at a cost of some $85,000, the 28 metre tunnel which is about the width of a road-lane at 2.4 metres, was opened on 23rd February 1964 – just before Singapore’s first overhead bridge at Collyer Quay was completed in April 1964. This makes the underpass a historic one, being the first non-conventional (non-surface) pedestrian crossing built in Singapore. That fact is today is largely forgotten, as is the underpass. The recent developments in the area involving roads, public transport, and use of buildings in Empress Place, has seen pedestrian traffic in the area falling off, as well as vehicular traffic on Connaught Drive and the underpass in the context of all that does seem rather irrelevant. What greets me today, is a tunnel that stripped of its corrugated lining, vendors and beggars, contains not the echoes of today’s footsteps, but the silence of one that is forgotten.

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4 responses

15 06 2012
TheBlackTwig

Another interesting piece.

15 06 2012
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Thanks! 🙂

17 06 2012
Francis Lai

Jerome, the mere sight of your photo reminds me of my good old days as a young child. The location has changed vastly except the famous Asia Insurance Bldg, then considered the tallest bldg in Singapore, I think or is it Cathay Bldg ? Two famous locations nearby not shown on the photo are the Queen Elizabeth Walk and the Clifford Pier commonly known by our older generation then as “red lamp harbour”. My parents (and others as well) used to bring us here in the evenings every CNY times when we were young kids, just to enjoy the sea breeze, the crowd and little ships and boats anchored at the seashore. I remember when I was in Sec 4, together with my classmates we ate beef kway teow at one of the numerous hawkers pushcart stalls operated at night outside the Clifford Pier. In the day times, the place was used as a surface carpark then. It is truly memorable to me !

20 06 2012
Francis Ang

Hi Jerome, reading this blog entry on “ang teng beh tau” evokes nostalgic feelings of the place. My parents too brought me in the evenings at least once a week after dinner. I was about 5 years old then. We were then staying in Wallich Street, the Customs quarters next to then Customs House (now the International Arbitration Court) @ Maxwell Road. I remembered vividly the sound of pounding waves on the walls of QE Walk, the kacang putih man, etc. As I grew, my sister came along and I must say it was one of our favourite playgrounds enjoying the breeze. Even when we shifted houses, at least once or twice a year, my parents will bring us there during festive occasions. As the years passed, the satay club came into being coming over from the old Allambra @ Beach Road. Besides the sinful but lovely chendol, there was also this cold bubor cha cha at the semi circular food centre. I remembered the tunnel leads to the Empress Place area where the former Immigration Dept was located (now Asia Civilisation Museum). Across Cavenagh Bridge there was this row of hawkers plying their trade behind Fullerton Building (now a 5* hotel) my favorite was the beef kway teow! While eating I also recall witnessing young lads about my age then diving and frolicking in the busy Singapore River from the river banks along Empress Place. I enjoyed the sights of the tongkangs with their cargo moving along the river to the quayside area to unload their cargo. I can still picture them in my mind. Thanks, Jerome for igniting the memories. Cheers!

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