A walk on the wild side

15 05 2011

I took a walk into a world where there might not have been one, where gold, crimson and blue tinged fairies dance a flight of joy, a joy that’s echoed in the singing of songs of joy that eludes ears made weary by the cacophony of the grey world we have found ourselves in. It is a world that seeks to be found in the midst of the cold grey world we find around us, a world that we may soon lose with the lost of the reasons for its being. The world I speak of is none other than the Green Corridor that has existed solely because of the railway which has allowed a green and seemingly distant world to exist next to the concrete world that we have created in our island.

A world that seeks to be discovered - but how much longer will it be there for us?

The walk on the wild side passed through some two kilometres of plush greenery which now probably exists only because of the railway that runs through the area.

The walk that I took was with a group of some 30 people, led by the Nature Society of Singapore and the National Library Board (NLB) to a stretch that I had previously only seen from the perspective of a passenger on the train. It was a short but interesting walk that started at the foot of a railway bridge across Dunearn and Bukit Timah that takes me back to my childhood days – the black truss bridge that I have since my early days looking out for it from the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100, associated with the area. Led by our expert guide, Ms Margie Hall, we were taken not just on a history trip through the slightly more than two kilometre route to the road bridge over the railway at Old Holland Road (close to its junction with Ulu Pandan/Holland Roads), but on a nature trail, as names of birds some of which as Singaporeans we have forgotten about, rattled off Ms Hall’s tongue.

The railway bridge, our starting point, was one that I have identified with the area since my early days spent looking out for it from the back seat of my father's Austin 1100.

One of the features of the walk from a historical perspective was of course the station at Bukit Timah, built to serve the great railway deviation of 1932 which turned the line in that direction and onto Tanjong Pagar. These days, the station serves more as a point where the exchange of the key token, made necessary by the single track is made, a practice I have observed many times from my many encounters with the train.

Bukit Timah Station now serves as a point for the exchange of the key token. In the days gone by, the station was where racehorses coming in to race at the Turf Club were offloaded as well.

A waiting train at Bukit Timah Station.

It was beyond the station that my journey of discovery started. Looking into the distance the width of the clearing through which the line ran looked very much wider than most of the other areas I was familiar with. This was understandable from the perspective of the station itself where alternate tracks for waiting trains to shunt onto were necessary. The width was of course explained by the fact that a line had branched off at the station – the old Jurong Line which was constructed in a project initiated by the Economic Development Board (EDB) to supplement the development of Jurong Industrial Estate. The line ran in parallel for a short distance before turning west into a tunnel under Clementi Road – what is now an area with dense vegetation that is featured in Liao Jiekai’s award winning movie Red Dragonflies which is currently on a limited run at Filmgarde Iluma. The stretch is already popular with cyclists and joggers who in using the stretch of the Green Corridor, shows that there is already a lush stretch of greenery that is ready made – with the authorities having to spend very little money to develop compared to the millions spent on the park connector network. Ms Hall also shared her visions for the area, saying that the tracks should be kept along with the station in its original condition – the station, which has also been listed as one with conservation status (meaning that only its façade needs to be conserved). Ms Hall felt that conserving the station without keeping it in the original condition would not serve the purpose of conserving it – something that I certainly agree with. Some of the thoughts she had included running a replica railway over a short length of tracks to and from the station to allow future generations to have an appreciation for the trains which had served us for over a century.

The stretch of the Green Corridor is already popular with joggers ...

... and cyclists ... proving that is already a long "park connector" that is ready for use.

The clearing through which the portion of the corridor south of Bukit Timah Station runs is wider than most other parts of the rail corridor.

Ms. Hall felt that the tracks should be kept in place for our future generations to appreciate.

The area where the Jurong Line would have turned off into the tunnel is marked by piles of wooden railway sleepers and is one where we stopped and were able to take in the diversity of birds and insects in their songs and dances of joy in and around the lush greenery before us. It was at this point where Ms Hall was in her element, being able to identify birds from the sounds that rose above the others in the background, identifying that of an Iora and a Tailorbird upon hearing their calls. Ms Hall also pointed out Long-Tailed Parakeets high in the trees as well as a pair of Scaly-Breasted Munias foraging in the grass. From this point the corridor is marked with a narrow path through which we passed through single file. The sight of the bridge over Old Holland Road which marked the end of the trail brought with it what was perhaps an ominous gathering of dark clouds … dark clouds that seem to hover over the future of a wonderful gift of nature that Singaporeans seemed to have passed over.

It wasn't just red dragonflies that were able to discover ...

... but also saffron coloured ones ...

... and turquoise coloured ones as well.

A parakeet perched high at the top of a tree - one of the many birds we encountered.

Morning Glory.

A cassava or tapioca leaf.

Proceeding single file on towards Old Holland Road.

For the Green Corridor, the first of July this year sees not only sees the end of its use by the railway, but its continued existence would be under threat. The indications are that there are already plans to redevelop some of the areas which would be reclaimed by Singapore. During the budget debate in Parliament in March this year, the then Foreign Minister George Yeo was quoted as saying that “the development of areas along the railway line, including Silat Estate and the expansion of the One-North business park in Buona Vista, will start after July 1” (see the Straits Times report dated 4 March 2011). It has also come to my attention that a tender was called for the “removal and storage of railway including ancillary structures from Woodlands Train Checkpoint to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station” which closed recently with work scheduled to commence on 1 July 2011. It does look that proposals to retain the green corridor made by the NSS has largely been overlooked by the authorities involved, and the authorities are pressing ahead with the redevelopment of a rich natural resource and a part of our green heritage. It is a shame if this does happen, as not only will we see the last of the passing locomotives and carriages that weaved their way slowly across the island for over a century, but also the last bits of a part of Singapore that the railway has given to Singapore. It only through my recent wanderings that I have become so well acquainted with some portions of it and have began to have a appreciation for what the corridor is worth to us. There are some wonderful ideas that advocates of the Green Corridor have for preserving the corridor – some were in fact presented and discussed right after the walk which was part of a programme that included a forum. This I would touch on in another post. What I hope for is that whoever is involved in the plans for the redevelopment of the area pauses to consider some of these proposals more seriously and to also consider we and more importantly our future generations, would be losing should the Green Corridor be taken over by the concrete jungle that so much of Singapore has now become.

Arched brickwork of a culvert supporting the railway tracks near Old Holland Road.

The little things that matter - the rich biodiversity that the railway corridor supports would be lost to the concrete jungle should plans to redevelop the corridor be executed.

From one bridge to the next ... the bridge at Old Holland Road under which the railway corridor passes through.





The last train from Tanjong Pagar

14 05 2011

On the 30th of June, we will see the last day of operation at the grand old station at Tanjong Pagar. The station, grand not in terms of scale, but in the magnificent style in which it was built, has served Singapore as the southern terminal station for close to eight decades, having been completed in 1932 to provide a city fast growing in economic importance with a station befitting of its status, and being part of a deviation of the railway which had prior to that, run through the Bukit Timah corridor before terminating at Tank Road. With the return of the railway land which has been held on a lease by the successors of the Malayan Railway, Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) and the shift of the southern terminal on the 1st of July, the age of rail travel across Singapore, which has lasted a little over a century, would draw to a close.

Operations at the grand building which has served as the southern terminal of the Malayan Railway since 1932 will cease on 1st July 2011.

In what form the station, which has recently received status as a National Monument, will be conserved following the handover we do not know, but whatever does happen, it would only serve as a reminder of the once working station which had for many years been an oasis of the laid back old world feeling that is missing from the modern Singapore that we have gotten used to. Gone will be the whistles and the drone of the diesel engines, the coming and going of passengers, the popular food outlets and what has become an institution at the railway station, the Habib Book Store and Money Changer. Gone will also be the opportunity to soak up the feel of the mood around the station, and lazily sip away at a cup of tea seated at the station end of the arrival platform.

A vanishing scene at Tanjong Pagar: Habib Book Store and Money Changer.

Another vanishing scene at Tanjong Pagar: The coming and going of passengers.

No more opportunity to lazily sip a cup of tea on the arrival platform come the 1st of July.

All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, and come to an end will be an era and to mark this end, a last train would be be leaving Tanjong Pagar on the 30th of June. This train would be special as it would be driven by none other than HRH Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of Johor. More information on how to get on this train I understand would be available from KTM’s headquarters and tickets I understand would cost somehwere in the order of $300. For me, I would choose to instead to be on the last train in … and be the last passenger to alight … that just to bring not just an era but also a chapter in Malaysia’s and Singapore’s history to a close … as a memory of a railway that I will certainly miss in the years to come …

The last train out will be one that would have a special driver ...

The Sultan of Johor will drive the last train out of Tanjong Pagar on 30th June 2011 (photo source: http://www.thestar.com.my).

I would rather be that last passenger to alight at Tanjong Pagar.


To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.


If anyone is keen to join Clarissa Tan, Notabilia, and myself on the last train into Singapore (not the last train which will be the northbound train from Tanjong Pagar), do indicate your interest by leaving a comment at Notabilia’s post on the subject.

In the Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday 29 May 2011

网上召集搭未班火车回家

约两周前,网上已有人开 始召集在6月30日到马来西亚一同搭回返丹戎巴葛火车站的最后一班火车,为火车站来个 “欢送会”。据召集人之一林坚源了解,当天晚上10时抵新的班车应孩会是火车战停用前最最后一班在这里停 的火车靠的火车。

“虽然丹戎巴葛火车站的最后一班车据说是当天晚上10时半由柔佛州苏丹亲自开往马来西亚的班车, 但是我们新加坡人来说,搭乘南向火车回家更具意义。”


Update 14 June 2011 (New Straits Times)

Tickets snapped up for KTMB’s final Tanjong Pagar service

2011/06/14
By Atiqa Hazellah
news@nst.com.my

KUALA LUMPUR: More than 170 people will be on the last train out of Tanjong Pagar station in Singapore on June 30, but chances are, they will not be rushing to get aboard before the green flag signifying the start of the journey is waved.
Almost all of the 172 tickets for the final journey were snapped up after they went on sale at noon yesterday, pointing to the possibility that many wanted to be a part of the historic occasion.

Just five hours after the ticket counters opened for business, the second class sleeping coach tickets were sold out, while the first and second class coaches had only two and 56 tickets left, respectively.

The Ekspres Senandung Sutera locomotive will depart at 10pm from the Tanjong Pagar station, breaking the silence of the darkness of the night for one last time. The express train service ends at the Kuala Lumpur Sentral station.

Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd corporate communications executive Kelvin Khew said a sending-off celebration would be organised to commemorate the historic occasion. “The celebration will start at 11pm with many activities lined up, (including) selling the train’s memorabilia.” Besides that, said Khew, an exhibition would be held at the Tanjong Pagar station from June 26 to 29, in collaboration with Tourism Malaysia.

The Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, will drive a special train from Tanjong Pagar and stop at the Woodlands Immigration checkpoint, then continue to Johor Baru Sentral after getting a licence last year.

Meanwhile, a page has been set up by several people on social networking site Facebook.

Called “The Last Train Into Tanjong Pagar”, it has already accumulated 357 fans since it was created earlier this month.

Most of them expressed their sadness over the closure of the Tanjong Pagar station.

On July 1, the curtains will come down on the Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah stations in Singapore as KTMB terminates its rail services in the republic south of the Woodlands train checkpoint.

The Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah stations have been providing rail services for Malaysians and Singaporeans since 1932 and 1915, respectively. The Tanjong Pagar site and other KTMB land parcels in the island republic will be jointly developed by MS Pte Ltd, a company with a 60 per cent stake held by Khazanah Nasional Bhd and 40 per cent by Temasek Holdings Ltd.

This was agreed upon during a series of bilateral meetings which also involved Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his Singapore counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, last year.

Read more: Tickets snapped up for KTMB’s final Tanjong Pagar service http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/TicketssnappedupforKTMB__8217_sfinalTanjongPagarservice/Article#ixzz1PF2AiKGG






Reflections on the morning after

9 05 2011

Many had thought, or at least hoped that Singapore’s General Elections held on the 7th of May 2011 would be a watershed for politics in Singapore. With the dust now settling after what must have been one of the most exciting campaigns for a long time, the scorecard of 81 to 6 does make it look as if nothing much has changed, with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) holding an overwhelming majority, and the opposition left to contend with an ineffective representation in Parliament. We do have to look a little further than the headlines on the front page though, to realise that the elections is indeed a watershed for Singapore in many ways.

81-6 read the front page of the Straits Times on the morning after, but what should really have been on the front pages of the news was the erosion of support for the ruling party.

Besides the PAP which retained its hold on power, the other party that perhaps had a victory of sorts was the opposition Workers’ Party, adding five more seats from winning in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) beyond the Single Member Constituency (SMC) that they previously held in Hougang. In that we also saw a big shift in the positions of the opposition parties, with the Workers’ Party (WP) increasing their share of the votes and giving a good a good account of themselves; while veteran politician Chiam See Tong’s decision in his twilight years to contest in a GRC and have his wife Lina stand in Potong Pasir, a seat he has held for some 27 years, saw him and his Singapore People’s Party (SPP) lose their previously held seat by the narrowest of margins. There is no doubt that all that is significant and does show that there is a huge shift in the political landscape, with the WP showing that it is a force in politics, and with the PAP losing a GRC the first time since their introduction in 1988, but also a senior member of the Cabinet, Foreign Minister George Yeo. The GRCs, which account for the majority of constituencies in Singapore’s electoral map, is a grouping of three or more constituencies in which its MPs are voted in as a group, the purpose of which is to ensure adequate representation of minorities with at least one member of the group being from an ethnic minority group. The system has been much criticised by opponents on the grounds that it serves as a huge barrier to what were previously fragmented opposition parties who had difficulty in putting together a large enough group of candidates to contest in the GRCs.

Despite strong support on the ground for Mr Chiam and his wife Lina Chiam, his gamble to stand in a GRC leaving Mrs Chiam to contest in Potong Pasir, saw the Chiam's long association with the ward end. Mrs Chiam lost by the thinnest of margins of less than 1% of the valid votes.

One of the important statistics related to the outcome of the elections would be the 6% fall in the ruling party’s share of votes to some 60.14%. The party had up until 1981, enjoyed 13 years of absolute control of Parliament, and had long had strong support from the population. Of late, voter disaffection and the increased awareness of a hitherto apathetic electorate, plus a desire to have greater representation for alternative views in Parliament has seen support eroded from over 75% of the popular vote at its highs to a historical low of close to 60% this election. While this and the huge majority it has in Parliament does indicate that there is still popular support for the party which has ruled Singapore since its independence, the fact that support is being eroded so much so that now 4 out of every 10 Singaporean voters have voted against the ruling party, signifies a worrying trend for the party.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam of the Workers

The lead up to the General Elections saw the largest crowds attending the Workers' Party's rallies. Despite the rain and the muddy conditions on the ground - the crowd that gathered on the penultimate day of campaigning at Ubi Avenue 2 resulted in traffic jams in the area.

This time around, the social media provided a powerful platform for an airing of the opinions of the disaffected, where previously there was none. It was in fact with the social media that the rules of engagement had changed. This was recognised by all parties as a means to reach out to a new generation of social media savvy voters, with a fifth of the electorate below the age of 30. Where in previous elections, the airing of opinions did not go beyond exchanges within one’s circles of friends and relatives, and perhaps on the backseat of a taxi, the social media was able to extend the reach much further to many who shared similar views. This in a sense provided a previously apathetic electorate with a platform for a political awakening and in a collective desire by like minded people to perhaps challenge the status quo. One factor that may have played a part in the small but noticeable swing of votes may have been the platform not being understood well enough by certain quarters of the ruling establishment.

A Worker's Party election campaign banner seen outside Parliament House on Election Day. Many Singaporeans want to see an wider representation in Parliament.

Whatever it was, the election was a watershed for me. I am one who believes that all voices should be heard and that the task of running the country I was born in shouldn’t be left to one group of people who belong to a single party, no matter how well qualified they may appear. I do not dispute that the ruling party which has ruled Singapore since independence has done an excellent job in transforming Singapore into an economic success that many at the point of independence would not have imagined, as well as in addressing the needs of a population that has steadily risen from some 1.9 million during independence to just over 5 million at the end of last year. I don’t think for a moment that I, or for that matter many other like minded voters who cast a vote for change, are being ungrateful, or have forgotten what the previously leadership has done as some would like to think. There is certainly no doubt in my mind that as of today, there is no party that is better positioned to manage a nation that has been so well managed. What I did was, to cast a vote for a future which will include a voice for what has long been a voiceless minority; for a system that has the capacity to address the genuine concerns of the many on the ground who have fallen by the wayside; and for some sensibility to return to the leadership of a country that has become so consumed by their success that they have forgotten what the party had stood for all those years back, It is only by having an alternative voice in Parliament that can engage the ruling party as equals, not just for now, but for time to come that this can ensure that this happens. I am proud to say that I am one of the four out of every ten that said yes to this, and while this on a National level hasn’t translated to more than a handful of alternative voices in our next Parliament, it has seen what I hope is a new dawn – a “shift” as Prime Minister Lee put it in politics that I hope will also transform those in the ruling party to recognise what the people of Singapore are asking for. The signs so far are positive and as PM Lee himself has indicated in his post victory speech: “We hear all your voices” and that it was a “time for healing and for acceptance of the people’s decision, not just for the PAP but for all Singaporeans”. I was there to celebrate the victory of the WP team of Aljunied, and when the official announcement was made that the WP had been successful in winning Aljunied GRC, I found a cause to celebrate, as I did with that by-election victory in Anson all those years back. It did take 30 years to arrive where we are, but with what is recognised as a new political climate in Singapore, what I hope comes out of this is the start of a shift towards a more open and inclusive political system, one that Singapore as a first world country should ultimately have.

Sunset on Election Day brought bright colours - perhaps signifying the optimisation many had for a mature democracy in Singapore.

A historical moment? The celebration at Hougang Stadium in the wee hours of 8 May:

A large crowd of Workers' Party faithful gathered at Hougang Stadium streaming in from as early as 5pm on Election Day in anticipation of the election results.

The crowd holding a poster of the WP candidates for Aljunied GRC.

Mr Yaw Shin Leong, WP's candidate for Hougang SMC who won with a margin of close to 30%, after his victory speech.

Lawyer Chen Show Mao - part of WP's team in Aljunied waving to the crowd.

A supporter trying to get a good view of the winning team's departure from Hougang Stadium - certainly not one who sat on the fence.

With 6 MPs now in Parliament, will the WP hammer away at the PAP's overwhelming majority in the future?





A Russian swallow and a Singaporean cypher officer

29 04 2011

The Cold War was a period that now seems a distant past. Its end, not so long ago, came with the demise of the Soviet dominated bloc of Communist States in the early 1990s. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the playing out of the Cold War was very much in evidence. This was seen in even in the space race, which might have seen to have been won by the free world with the first lunar landing at the end of the 1960s.

There were also the many tales of espionage. While much that was read was of the fictional variety told – found in the many books and movies featuring the likes of Secret Agent 007 and through the much read novels of John le Carré, the were also real-life dramas that surfaced from time to time. One  that caught my attention – when I was in my teenage years –involved a Bulgarian dissident and playwright Georgi Markov. Markov, living in exile in London and on his way home from work at the BBC’s offices during rush hour, was killed in a James Bond like fashion. Waiting at a bus stop at Waterloo Bridge, he felt a stinging pain in his thigh after he had been jabbed by an umbrella. He thought nothing of the incident, and continued on his way home, dying three days later. It was later established that the umbrella a Bulgarian agent had stabbed him with had been modified to fire a pinhead sized pellet containing a poison, ricin by the KGB. KGB, an acronym synonymous with Soviet espionage stood for Komitet Gosudarsvenoy Bezopanosti or the Committee for State Security –  the Soviet secret service.

There were also tales that were more lurid. One that was very well known to me even if it preceded my arrival into the world, dubbed the Profumo affair, was made into a movie entitled Scandal in 1989. That incident involved a setting typical of spy thrillers of a fictional nature with its cast of society girls, people in high places, spiced up by ingredients of sex and deceit. It main character was an up and coming politician in the Conservative set up and the Secretary of State for War by the name of John Profumo. His affair with Christine Keeler, reputedly the mistress of a suspected Soviet spy and his denial of it in the House of Common, not only brought him down but was also instrumental in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s resignation.

We were not insulated from such incidents even in tiny Singapore. One that came to light in 1980 involved a rather innocent looking cypher officer with our Embassy in Moscow. The cypher officer, was contacted by a certain Luba Lubov Maluba, about a year into his May 1978 posting to Moscow on the pretext that she was a friend of the previous occupant of the apartment in which the cypher officer, his wife and young daughter were living in. It would turn out that Maluba to whom the cypher officer fell prey, was a “swallow” – a female agents trained to seduce susceptible foreign men with the aim of blackmailing them to obtain information. In the course of their interactions, the cypher officer would pass transcripts of decoded messages to Maluba and later, settings for the cypher machine. He was only found out when he was arrested for trying to smuggle religious icons out of the Soviet Union to Finland and was recalled to Singapore where he confessed to the CID. The cypher officer was charged and jailed for a total of 10 years. More of the tale can be found in the online Straits Times archives.





A visit to the lighthouse on Singapore’s One Tree Island

12 04 2011

An hour by boat from Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal, lies Pulau Satumu, which by virtue of being the southernmost island of Singapore, is the southernmost point in Singapore. The island, which is some 14 km south of the nearest point on the main island of Singapore is also home to a lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse, one of four offshore lighthouses operated by the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA), the others being on Sultan Shoal, Pedra Branca and Pulau Pisang which is on Malaysian territory. Being very much one who has always taken an interest in all things nautical, I have always been drawn to lighthouses … my very first encounters with one being the one that had shone its beacon from the top of the Fullerton Building that I loved watching on the many strolls with my parents down Collyer Quay, and when the opportunity arose to catch a boat to Raffles Lighthouse, I certainly wasn’t going to give it a miss.

Pulau Satumu or "One Tree Island", the southernmost island of Singapore, is home to Raffles Lighthouse.

The visit to the lighthouse, part of a learning journey organised by the MPA in conjunction with Singapore Maritime Week was a rare opportunity. Lighthouses are protected places in Singapore and access to the islands that the lighthouses of the form that most of us have an impression of is restricted, and I certainly did not need a second asking. So, on an overcast and rather muggy day, I found myself sitting in a launch at Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal with a large group of students, as I keenly anticipated the start of a journey that would take me to the first ever operating lighthouse that I would have ever visited in Singapore, to the gentle rolling of the launch to the undulations on the surface of the sea.

Lighthouses currently operated by the MPA, as seen on a nautical chart at Raffles Lighthouse.

The ride which took a little more than an hour, provided me with an excellent opportunity to have a look at the massive changes to the waters around the south west of Singapore. What greets the eye immediately upon leaving the ferry terminal is the reclamation taking place off Pasir Panjang, part of the effort to expand the container terminals that the area now hosts. Moving off along with the launch we were in, was a double ended ramped single deck vehicle ferry with a load of construction vehicles, a sign of the frenzy of activity that is now surely taking place offshore. The Semakau landfill (perhaps more appropriately “seafill”), which has joined Pulau Semakau with Pulau Seking (a.k.a. Pulau Sakeng), is clearly visible from the start, the long building that serves as a receiving station is instantly recognisable. The first island we actually pass along the way is Pulau Bukom on which the Shell Refinery has long been a feature, and moving southeast we soon see Pulau Jong, a tiny rocky island which is topped by green vegetation, before going past Pulau Sebarok which houses petroleum products receiving and discharging facilities as is evident by the many tanks and berthing spaces on the island. It was in going around Pulau Sebarok that we catch the first sight of Raffles Lighthouse in the grey of the overcast sky … just as I had envisaged it – well, almost … there are certainly more than a single tree that one might have expected knowing the origin of the name of the island that the lighthouse was built on. Pulau Satumu, based on information found on Wikipedia, “means one tree island — sa refers to satu (one) and tumu is the Malay name for the large mangrove tree, Bruguiera confugata”.

On the launch to Pulau Satumu.

Pulau Jong.

The receiving station at Pulau Semakau, looking beyond Pulau Jong.

Pulau Sebarok.

Enroute to Raffles Lighthouse.

The stern and exposed propeller of an unladen tanker - probably undergoing sea trials ....

Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu as seen on the approach to the jetty.

Raffles Lighthouse as seen on land.

Once on land, whilst waiting to be taken up to the lighthouse, MPA was kind enough to provide the participants of the tour with lunch, and it was over lunch that I had a chat with a member of MPA’s staff. One of the interesting things he did mention was that there were holiday facilities for staff at Sultan Shoal, as well as there being rooms within the lighthouse that were reserved just to allow Ministers to take a holiday on the island. One thing we could do before going up was to have a walk around what certainly seemed like one of the few idyllic places left in Singapore, that is until the silence was punctured by the roar of jets flying above – the island being in close proximity to the live firing range used by the Airforce at the cluster of islands that lay to the west of Pulau Satumu: Pulau Senang, Pulau Pawai, and Pulau Sudong. Still, the island does exudes a charm that has been lost from the coastal areas of Singapore with a little beach and coconut grove leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

A bench at Raffles Lighthouse.

An idyllic scene from Pulau Satumu.

The beach leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

Pulau Senang.

It was soon time to ascend the flight of steps up to the top of the lighthouse – 107 steps we were told, 86 built into the lighthouse and a further 17 on the iron stairway up to the top – hard work even for the fit. Standing some 72 feet high, the lighthouse, the second oldest operated by Singapore (the oldest being Horsburg Lighthouse built in 1851), was built in 1855, on what was then referred to as Coney Islet, and looks none the worse for wear in spite of its age. A little bit of its history can be found in the infopedia stub on the lighthouse. At the top we were greeted by one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty Mr. Mani. The lighthouse keepers work on a rotating 12 hours shift for 10 days, returning to the mainland for 10 off days, and are involved in the upkeep of equipment and in the event that the beacon fails – would require to operate the emergency beacon run off batteries. It is quite a quiet and lonely life for ten days … something that is probably hard to imagine in the fast pace world that we live in today. Lighthouses, which have always been important aids to navigation, has with the advent of GPS and electronic navigation means, been rendered somewhat obsolete. However, these are still around and serve an improtant function as a backup in event that electronic means onboard ship fail.

The stairway to the top ...

A window at the bottom of the lighthouse.

A pressurised vapour kerosene mantle burner system that was employed at the turn of the 20th Century at a landing just before the top.

Up the last flight of stairs.

The beacon at the top of the lighthouse.

A radar reflector.

Mr Mani, one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty showing us around at the top.

All too soon, it was time to leave, the launch taking a different route that took us to Marina South, with a stop off Marina South to watch a demo by MPA’s fire-fighting vessel Api-Api, throwing a spray of sea water with its two monitors. Soon back on dry land, we were to be greeted by a different spray altogether – one of a shower that was threatening to come down on us the whole day … fortunately we had made our trip to Raffles Lighthouse and back, with pleasant memories of a rare foray to an otherwise off-limits southernmost part of Singapore.





The end of the line?

7 04 2011

The disused Jurong Line has been very much in the news of late. This may in part be due to the interest in the railway brought about by the knowledge that we will soon see the last of the Malayan railway running through Singapore. There is of course some focus brought on to the Jurong Line in particular by a proposal by members of the Nature Society of Singapore (NSS) to establish a green corridor on the land which the line runs through. What has motivated the latest spate of reports in the news has very much a bearing on the latter, with a proposed road over a part of the area where the line runs through bringing some consternation to proponents of the green corridor and some anguish amongst residents of a quiet residential area, Faber Heights, which straddles a particularly green piece of land through which the line passes through, the news and the start of work on the road catching many by surprise.

The corridor through which the disused Jurong Line runs through is part of a proposal by members of the Nature Society of Singapore to establish a Green Corridor along the old railway lines.

The corridor through which the Jurong Line runs branches off at Bukit Timah Station, and stretches close to 20 km to the end of Shipyard Road near the Benoi Basin. A large part of it has probably remained in a close to natural state, relatively untouched by development since the line was constructed in the mid 1960s. The line which is essentially an extension of the main line, was intended to serve the new industrial estate then taking shape in Jurong, and the irony is that it is the line that has probably saved much of the greenery along the corridor it runs through from the fate that befell the area on which the industrial estate it was meant to serve was built on. It is along the corridor that we now find ourselves hanging on not just to the greenery it has helped preserved, but also to habitats for bird life, as well as to a way of life that once existed in the rural parts of Singapore.

Much of the railway corridor is untouched by the wave of development that has swept over Singapore over the last half a century.

Leaves and a fruit of the mulberry tree along the green corridor.

It was for this, as well as an interest in the railway for which I had originally participated in a NSS organised walk in January, during which I was greeted by many scenes resembling that of a rural Singapore that I had stored only in my memory. It is along the some of the more accessible parts of the green corridor that we can discover all this: small plots of vegetables, fruit trees and the forgotten smells of the countryside, all on what is former KTM land that has been returned to the State, which has somehow been tolerated by the authorities. The plots are spread along the area close to Teban Gardens, and also along a wedge of land between Sungei Ulu Pandan and the northern fringe of Clementi, and walking through the area, we are able to appreciate a little bit of what we could soon be losing should plans to develop some of the areas get the go ahead.

The start of another walk down the green corridor.

Walking along the tracks brings us to a green part of Singapore.

Vegetable plots along the green corridor - a welcome sight in an urban landscape.

Small scale farms can be found all along the stretch behind Teban Gardens and in the wedge of land between the northern fringe of Clementi and Sungei Ulu Pandan.

A makeshift scarecrow set amongst banana trees?

In a recent walk during which I joined some of the advocates of the Green Corridor in a familiarisation walk through part of the corridor, I could observe that work on the road has indeed started, the evidence being the hoardings put up in the area where the road is being constructed and clear signs that parts of the disused track have been removed. The proposed road at Faber Heights, intended to ease congestion in the area (and also to serve a suggested expansion in residential units in the area), does cut through what is an area of lush greenery that features what must be a natural creek or a pond, a rare find in the Singapore we have now grown accustomed to. Hearing some of the older participants on the walk reminisce about their childhood exploits in and around similar ponds and creeks into which they would often venture into barefoot in search of a harvest of longkang fish – something that the children of today would find hard to appreciate.

Signs that work has started on the proposed road in the Faber Heights are is very much in evidence.

Work includes the dismantling of the track in the approach to the Faber Heights area.

A stretch where the tracks have been completely removed.

Another look at the area where the tracks are now missing.

The pond or creek at the Faber Heights area - will it be affected?

Part of the track that is still with us ... but for how long more?

Participants on the walk photographing remnants of the track in the Faber Heights area.

It would probably be a case of having to move a mountain to stop the wave of development that has and is still very much sweeping thought the island, but there is a growing number of voices that have been added to the cause to save the area as well as to establish a green corridor. There is certainly hope that the authorities lend a year to the cause … and if there are sufficient voices that are heard, who knows, it is possible that a mountain is about to be moved.

Water Hyacinth - once a common sight - used a pig fodder in the days of old.

The smoke from offerings being burnt in a rural shrine along the green corridor.

Not green but the brown of a roll of corrugated cardboard ...

Kettles on a stove as it might have been in the rural Singapore of old.

The trunk of a fallen tree ... along the green corridor.





Sembawang beyond the slumber

29 03 2011

Highlights of a heritage tour of Sembawang, “Sembawang Beyond the Slumber”, with a focus on the Sembawang that I was familiar with in the 1970s. This was conducted through the Sembawang Public Library on 27 March 2011. The two and a half hour tour included a visit to the last kampung mosque in Singapore, as well as to several other points of interest in Sembawang:


The Sembawang of the 1970s was a place that I spent many a happy moment at. Back then, it was a place that, as with many of the coastal areas of Singapore, had the air of a sleepy part of Singapore where one could escape from the hustle and bustle of the urban world that I had in brought up in. The Mata Jetty at the end of Sembawang Road had then been the focal point of many of the seemingly long journeys to the northern most area of Singapore, dominated then (as it is now) by the huge shipyard around which life seemed in those northern part, to revolve around.

The destination that first brought me in contact with the post Naval Base Sembawang of the 1970s, the Mata Jetty.

The shipyard was to many who lived in the area, a source of sustenance, having provided a living to many who settled in the area since it started life as the repair dockyard of the largest Naval Base east of the Suez (said to have enough berthing space to take in the entire Royal Navy fleet at that time) over the 1920s culminating in the opening of the dockyard’s graving dock in 1938. Opened by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas on 14 February 1938, the King George VI dock (fondly referred to as KG6), was then the largest ever naval graving dock, one which is still very much in use today. The establishment of the dockyard had been a godsend, coming at the time when a slump in rubber prices meant that many who worked in the area which had depended very much on the rubber plantations introduced by Lim Nee Soon would have had an uncertain future. The dockyard attracted many from far and wide and was responsible for the establishment of the largest community of Malayalees in Singapore in the north. The announcement of the pullout of the British forces in 1968 had cast a shadow of doubt on the future for many who worked there as well as in many of the military bases around the island, coming at a time when a newly independent Singapore was struggling to find its feet, with the bases combined contributing to 20% of Singapore’s GNP. The establishment of a commercial shipyard on the site of the dockyard (the dockyard was transferred to the Singapore government for a token fee of $1) on 19 June 1968, had however, secured the future for many.

The shipyard which was established on the site of the former naval dockyard brought much life to the areas around Sembawang in the 1970s.

The Dockyard’s gates seen in the 1960s (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

By the time I started frequenting the jetty, the British had disappeared, and the ANZUK forces installed in place. By the time 1974 arrived, it was only the New Zealand Force SEA that was left with the withdrawal of the Australian Forces, and their presence didn’t go unnoticed in the area – with “The Strip” – a row of shop houses at Sembawang Village which contained several watering holes including the popular Nelson Bar being a popular hangout. Sembawang Village , established outside the Naval Base’s Sembawang Gate on Admiralty Road had several “makan stalls” including a row of Indian stalls that was popular for Mee Goreng as well as having hosted a bicycle shop that perhaps supplied the families of the many British, Australian and New Zealand military personnel that passed through the area, Cheap John’s which is still in the area – further down Sembawang Road close to Sembawang Shopping Centre.

Sembawang Village grew on the outside of the Sembawang Gate of the former Naval Base, catering to many who lived on the base (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait).

“The Strip” around Sembawang Village, provided watering holes for the many foreign servicemen in the area, which included the popular Nelson Bar.

“The Strip” seen in the 1970s (Source: ANZ Military Brats of Singapore).

Sembawang Village was also where Cheap John’s – a popular bicycle shop started some 40 years ago, was located. The shop is still around, currently located further south along Sembawang Road close to Sembawang Shopping Centre (Source: ANZ Military Brats of Singapore).

Cheap John’s at its current location is still very much a source of bicycles for Sembawang residents.

Despite the presence of the foreign military personnel, it was probably the workers of the shipyard that were responsible for perhaps rousing Sembawang from its slumber in the 1970s, bringing much colour and life not just to the villages that provided housing to many of them, but also to the streets around. One of the sights that greeted the early morning scene along the narrow Canberra Road that wove its way past the old Canberra Gate (another of the former gates of the Naval Base), of which one concrete pillar remained close to a bus stop that always looked busy with the comings and goings of the many schoolchildren who attended the few schools along the road, and the extended Chong Pang Village which grew to the west of Canberra Road all the way to the marshy land on the banks of the Sungei Sembawang, was that of the convoy of bicycles, their riders in the colourful overalls marked with the seahorses that Sembawang Shipyard had adopted as its logo.

Canberra Gate along Canberra Road in 1968 – near the junction with Sembawang Road. (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait)

A scene reminiscent of the Sembawang of the 1970s and 1980s – the stream of bicycles along a part of Canberra Road that has remained relatively unchanged.

Along Canberra Road across from the area where Sembawang Mart is today, the sight of a Hindu temple set in a clearing would greet the traveller. That was what was the original Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple built in the 1960s around an altar to Lord Murugan set up by a dockyard worker. It was at this temple where a annual festival which provided the area with much colour, Panguni Uthiram, involving a procession of a chariot and a kavadi procession, was first celebrated in the area in 1967, a tradition which continues till today, with the temple having moved to a new location in Yishun Industrial Park A in the 1990s.

The old Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple off Canberra Road (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

The area still plays host to the annual Panguni Uthiram festival, which now takes a different route. The festival was first celebrated at the old temple in 1967.

There were several other houses of worship which rose up prominently along some of the main roads of the area as well: the distinctive St. Andrew’s Church, built in 1963 to serve British Military personnel in the area along Admiralty Road close to what had been Sembawang Gate, which is still around; Masjid Naval Base which was close to the junction of Delhi Road and Canberra Road (since demolished); and the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea (now in Yishun) at the corner where Canberra Road branched off from Sembawang Road. One that was in an obscure location – nestled in the wooded coastal kampung area to the east of what is today Sembawang Park, in the Malay Settlement, Kampong Tengah, established by the British to house Malay dockyard workers, the Masjid Petempatan Melayu, built from the 1960s right up to the 1970s when the bulk of it was completed, is also still around in a setting very much unchanged (except that the kampung around it has since deserted it), having been granted an extended lease of life on a temporary basis. What the future holds for the mosque, dubbed the “Last Kampung Mosque in Singapore”, no one really knows, as Mdm. Zaleha of the mosque’s management committee laments … Today, the mosque comes alive during the school holidays, with camps run by the mosque for Muslim schoolchildren being a popular activity. One of the participants of the walk thought that it would be a nice idea to set up a holiday campsite in the area for schoolchildren of other religions as well.

Masjid Petempatan Melayu Sembawang – the last kampung mosque in a kampung setting.

Mdm. Zaleha of the Mosque’s Management Committee speaking to two of the participants.

Around the St. Andrew’s Church is the area dominated by the stately residences of the military personnel, many of which were built in the 1920s and 1930s as the Naval Base came up, both to the north of Admiralty Road all the way to the coast, and to the south towards Canberra Road. Many of the houses, referred to as “Black and White” houses for the way in which they are painted, are still there today, housing military personnel from the US Navy’s Logistics Base which now occupies part of what was the Stores Basin of the Naval Base just west of Sembawang Park. The former Stores Basin is also occupied in part by the Sembawang Wharves, run by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), established in the 1970s when it was vacated by the British. Sembawang Wharves had since been associated with timber, rubber and container imports, as well as being at one time one of the entry point for cars imported to Singapore.

St. Andrew’s Church, built in 1963 for the British Military personnel and their families.

Sembawang has a generous distribution of “Black and White” houses built in the 1920s and 1930s to house military personnel and their families.

The Stores Basin seen in 1962 (source: http://www.singas.co.uk). Part of it is used as a US Navy Logistics Base and the rest is part of PSA’s northern gateway, Sembawang Wharves.

In the cluster of Black and White houses south of the park, along Gibraltar Crescent, there is an interesting find – an entrance to a bunker engulfed by a Banyan Tree that has grown over it – a scene similar to that which greets a visitor at the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple complex in Siem Reap. Bunkers were commonly found nestled amongst the houses – most have been covered over now, including one at Gibraltar Crescent of which the only evidence left is a grass mound, as is one that used to greet the eye behind Beaulieu House.

The entrance of a WWII bunker engulfed by a Banyan tree along Gibraltar Crescent.

Another view of the bunker’s entrance.

Speaking of Beaulieu House, it is one of a few buildings in the area with conservation status, having been granted that in 2005. Built as a seaside home of a wealthy plantation owner in the early 1900s, it was acquired by the British military as the Naval Base was being built, serving as a home for the engineers and later for senior naval officers and it is mentioned that from 1940 to 1942, an Admiral Geoffrey Layton, the Commander-in-Chief for Britain’s China station stayed at the house and the house was occupied by Senior Fleet Officers after the war. The URA’s write-up on the house mentions that the name was derived from a certain Admiral Beaulieu, a Chief of Staff of the Royal Navy, but makes no mention of whether he stayed there.

Beaulieu House started life as a seaside home of a wealthy plantation owner, before being taken over by the British as the Naval Base was being constructed in the 1920s. Beaulieu House was included URA’s conservation list in 2005.

Beaulieu House, overlooks what was referred to in the 1970s as the Mata Jetty, being located at the end of Mata Road, which took one past two Muslim graves at a bend under a tree close to the fence line of the former Stores Basin. The jetty brings with it many memories of the smell of rotting fish used as bait in square bamboo framed crab traps weighed down by lead weights wrapped at each of its four ends of the frame, tied to the jetty with nylon or raffia twine. What comes back as well to me are the burnt planks and the railing-less sides and end off which a car was driven off at high speed in 1975. The waters around the jetty were great for harvesting shrimps with butterfly nets while wading in the eel and puffer fish infested waters. The shrimps eyes stood out when a light was shone in the water and that enabled one with a quick hand to scoop them out with the net. These often ended up over an open fire which we often built on the beach – the smell of fresh seafood over the fire and the crackling sounds that accompanied them as they cooked are still fresh in my memory.

Beaulieu House overlooks the Mata Jetty which was built in the 1940s and is today a popular jetty for fishing and crabbing.

Other buildings in the area which have some form of conservation status include Old Admiralty House which has been gazetted as a National Monument in 2002, and the former Sembawang Fire Station which was given conservation status in 2007, both of which we did not visit due to physical limitations. Old Admiralty House on Old Nelson Road (just across Canberra Road from Sembawang MRT Station), a two-storey brick bungalow housed the Commodore, Malaya and Officer in Charge of His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore.Constructed in 1939, iIt was later used as was the official residence of the Commander-in-Chief, Far East Station from 1958 up until 1971, when it was named Admiralty House. The URA also provides some information on the former Sembawang Fire Station (which is now within the grounds of Sembawang Shipyard): “built in the 1930s, this two-storey concrete building is designed in a simplified Art Deco-Modern style and has an elegantly proportioned fire-hose tower. The building is a local landmark for both the Sembawang area and the Shipyard”.

Admiralty House, built to house the Commodore Superintendent of the Dockyard and later used to house the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Far East Station was gazetted a National Monument in 2002.

Another building with conservation status is the former Sembawang Fire Station built in the 1930s with its distinctive fire hose tower. The building is within the premises of Sembawang Shipyard.

The last stop was perhaps the highlight for many, a visit to the site of the hot springs that has long been associated with the area. The hot springs, dubbed “Sembawang Hot Springs” was for much of my younger days, associated with the Seletaris bottling plant that came up in 1967 under a subsidiary of soft drink giant Fraser and Neave (F&N), Semangat Ayer Limited. The existence of the spring, based on a heritage guide published by the HDB and the National Heritage Board, had been known as far back as 1908 (which a book written by Song Ong Siang, “One Hundred Years of the Chinese in Singapore” puts as 1909), when a Municipal ranger called W. A. B. Goodall discovered it. The land owner, a certain Mr Seah Eng Keong proceeded to start bottling the water under the brand “Zombun” soon after, after he had established that it was safe to drink, establishing the Singapore Natural Mineral Hot Springs Company. F&N bought the company over in 1921 and bottled the water right up to the war under several brands which included “Zom”, “Salitaris”, “Singa Water” and “Vichy Water” until the Japanese Occupation, during which the Japanese built thermal baths in the area. This was destroyed during an allied bombing raid on Singapore in November 1942 which interrupted the flow of the spring water to the surface and on advise of a geologist after the war, F&N left the spring until flow was naturally restored in the 1960s. When Semangat Ayer’s bottling plant was established in 1967, there had actually been plans to build a spa in the area – but that never took off, and bottling continued until the 1980s, when the land on which the spring was on was acquired by the Government to build an airbase. That would have sounded the death knell for the hot spring and if not for an outcry from the local community, we might have seen the last of the only hot springs on mainland Singapore. A corridor was built in 2002 within the perimeter of the airbase along Gambas Avenue leading to a concrete base with standpipes which channel the spring water to taps, allowing the public use of the hot spring which is thought to have curative properties for several ailments. As several of the participants were to find out, the water which reported flows out at 65 degrees Celcius, does, based on its acrid smell, have some Sulphur content which is said to be useful for the treatment of skin problems.

Sembawang Hot Springs was the source of Seletaris – a brand of mineral water bottled by F&N’s subsidiary, Semangat Ayer Limited up to the 1980s (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

The visit to the hot springs brought back memories of another part of Sembawang that I was fond of, one that was accessible through a road Jalan Ulu Sembawang that lay at the back of what is now the Seletaris Condominium complex, developed by F&N on the site of part of what had been the Seletaris Bottling plant. A little stub of the road is still left, but no more than that. The road had once provided access to a vast area of farmland and fishing ponds – rising up onto a crest of a hilly area that overlooked what had seemed like rolling plains of vegetable farms. My father had in the 1970s and 1980s been fond of driving along the road just for that view … one that I remember as being one of the most picturesque in Singapore. The road lead to the Lorong Gambas and Mandai area which many who did National Service in the 1970s and 1980s would remember for the training areas they contained. Like much of what was around Sembawang, that is now lost, as is the large Chong Pang village that dominated much of the are south of the Naval Base which was demolished in 1989 after residents moved out in 1986 or so. Much of the area now occupied by the new Sembawang HDB estate. The plot of land where the heart of Chong Pang was, the roundabout near which the Sultan Theatre stood and where some of the best food in Singapore could be found, still lies empty, with plans to build a sports complex over the area. While that has gone, there are still many reminders that remain – particularly the areas on which the Black and White houses are located, the jetty and of course the old kampung mosque. There are also some reminders of the traditions that existed, the stream (albeit a smaller one) of bicycles heading down Canberra Road being one … and there is the most colourful one of all – the procession of kavadis that still make its way down once a year … on a different route, but one that reminds us of what Sembawang is all about, beyond that apparent slumber.

The Ulu Sembawang area was very scenic with its rolling slopes of vegetable farms (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg)..

The area was also home to several fishing ponds (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).





Reflections on Old Kallang Airport (Singapore Biennale 2011)

18 03 2011

[Do note that if you are planning a visit to the Biennale at Old Kallang Airport, the entrance is at Stadium Link, off Geylang Road, a short walk away from Kallang MRT Station. A link to a Google Map with the specific location of the entrance can be found at the end of this post].


Glancing at the headline of yesterday’s article on page 2 of the Life section of the Straits Times, which read “Biennale’s Kallang site not ideal. Visitors say that Old Kallang Airport, one of four venues for the art event, is difficult to get to and very stuffy”, and the lack of interest that is apparent at the venue so far with the exception of Saturday’s Open House Opening Party, one certainly can’t help but have a feeling that the choice of the site of the Singapore’s first civil airport, Old Kallang Airport, wasn’t a good one. I for one, did not mind the absence of a crowd, as that provided me with an opportunity to explore the marked historic site at leisure taking in as much as I could, grateful for the opportunity to explore buildings that I had previously only glanced at from behind a fence. In walking around, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a brilliant idea to do so, not just from the perspective of providing the public access to what had for long otherwise been a closed-off site, but also that the site was ideal for such an event, providing the spatial requirements required that does not exist in the confines of the museum buildings and sites in the city centre. Yes, maybe the site does seem a world away from the convenience of the city, but it isn’t really too far away and readily accessible via public transport, with the Kallang MRT station being a short enough walk away from the entrance to the site. Perhaps what is lacking isn’t the convenience that some have voiced their opinions about, but the information that the public needs to know.

The sign at the entrance of Old Kallang Airport.

The entrance of Old Kallang Airport.

I guess I am one for old places, especially the few that reamin that I can identify in some way from the childhood I had in a Singapore time has erased. The distinctive terminal building of the old airport with its control tower, which by the time I arrived in the world, was used by the People’s Association (PA) as its headquarters, had always been one that I had associated with Kallang and the Nicoll Highway, rising on the left of the east bound carriageway of Singapore’s first highway built after the airport had ceased operations. That would be the approach to the old Guillemard Circus and the wonderful neon signs that I somehow associate with the roundabout. There were many times that I had passed the building on foot as well, cutting on the side of it through from Kallang Road on the way to the National Stadium to catch a match or in the two months that I would have walked by on an almost daily basis on the way to Jalan Bennan Kapal. The tower adorned with the rings of the PA’s logo, had always caught my eye, rising somewhat defiantly and proudly to remind us of its past as Singapore’s first civil airport all those years back.

The distinctive terminal building which is a landmark in the area.

Another view of the terminal building.

The entrance gate to the terminal building.

Perhaps the inspiration for this set of photographs ... a work on display in the terminal building.

The reminders of its previous role had been everywhere, with names such as “Old Airport Road” and Dakota Crescent around. So even with me not having seen it used as an airport, I had been aware of it since I could remember … The airport had I was to discover, was built as an airfield on the site of land reclaimed from the swampy Kallang Basin in 1937 at the cost of S$9 million. It was opened very grandly by the then Govenor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas, who flew in from Seletar for the occasion with some 70 aircraft there to mark the occasion. The location next to the Kallang Basin proved useful as it also allowed seaplanes to land. It was used by the Japanese who built a paved runway during the occupation, and refurbished by the British on their return. And although there were plans to expand and upgrade the airport the the end of the 1940s and early 1950s, it was thought that effort involved would prove too costly and Kallang was abandoned for a new inetrnational airport at Paya Lebar. Paya Lebar started operations in 1955 and that saw the last of Kallang as a civil airport, with the PA moving into the site in 1960. On the evidence of old photographs, the hangars were used by the Public Works Department (PWD) after the airport closed. The bulk of the location of the main runway was then transformed into Kallang Park one which the Oasis Restaurant, Wonderland Amusement Park and later the National Stadium, Indoor Stadium and Kallang Leisuredrome was built.

The main hangar next to the West Block.

The West Block and the main hangar off the window of the terminal building.

A smaller hangar, once used as a second hand car showroom.

An auxiliary building.

Another view of the smaller hangar.

It was certainly nice to walk around the old site and reflect on this, and hence the theme of this post … much of the old airport grounds that are left have been left in not so much its original state, but in a state that perhaps the PA had left them in – which I thought wonderfully complemented the exhibits. That also meant a lot of the wear and tear was evident from not just the use of the buildings by the PA, but the hangars by used car dealers at some point in time – I remember seeing them still at the end of the 1990s passing by after a concert at the Indoor Stadium. That provided me with an alternative view of the buildings – reflected off puddles of water and off windows and mirrors. I certainly did not get enough of it on the two occasions that I visited and I will certainly return for more.

A Toast Box cafe set up in one of the smaller hangars.

The side of a hangar.

The roof of the smaller hangar.

The main hangar.

Ventilation openings on the side of the main hangar.

The inside of the main hangar.

Roof of the main hangar.

Windows on the side of the main hangar.

Windows on the side of the main hangar.

Some of the auxiliary buildings on the premises - I understand that these were used by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra in the 1990s.

A newer auxiliary building ... perhaps added in the 1950s as an expanded air traffic control centre.

A peek under a marquee.

Another view of the terminal building and an auxiliary building.

A reflection of the East Block on a mirror mounted on an auxiliary building.

A last look ....

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What’s to become of Old Kallang Airport? Thankfully, we should see that it is conserved for our future generations – it would be nice to see it turned into some kind of aviation museum though:

URA Letter to the Strait Times, 5 Mar 2010

URA has plans for old Kallang Airport site

I THANK Mr Edwin Pang for his Forum Online letter last Friday, 'Turn site into civil aviation heritage centre'.

The former Kallang Airport is located within Kallang Riverside, which is envisioned to be a new lifestyle hub at the fringe of the city area under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) 2008 Master Plan.

The former Kallang Airport passenger terminal building with its distinctive art deco structure, as well as the office buildings, former hangar, Old Airport Square and other historical structures, was designated a heritage area and conserved in 2008 to preserve memories while allowing for a new lease of life.

In future, they will be adapted to new uses as part of a future development centred on the conserved Old Airport Square, offering a wide range of lifestyle, entertainment and retail facilities.

In January, the Singapore Biennale committee announced that it was considering the former Kallang Airport as a venue for the festival next year. URA and the Singapore Land Authority are glad that the artistic community has found heritage buildings to be suitable venues for contemporary art events. Past editions of the Biennale were also held in heritage environments.

The synergy between heritage buildings and contemporary arts is useful in bringing the awareness of our conservation buildings to the wider public and helps to endear our heritage buildings to Singaporeans.

Hwang Yu-Ning (Ms)
Group Director (Physical Planning)
Urban Redevelopment Authority


Getting to Old Kallang Airport:

The entrance to Old Kallang Airport is located at Stadium Link, off Geylang Road and is a ten minute walk from Kallang MRT Station. Please click on this link for the specific location.






The crumbling bungalow at Upper Wilkie Road

4 03 2011

There was a time when Mount Sophia had been a magical world, a place where men who made it big in the developing colony of Singapore had sought to build several wondrous mansions. This was a world that I have described in previous posts: “One hundred steps to Heaven”, and “The magical hill with a fairy-tale like mansion that was Mount Sophia” and one that we, in the last four decades or so, have seen crumbling before our eyes. There is little of what is left to remind us of the wonderful villas, some that once would have commanded a magnificent and unobstructed view of the world around, the Abdullad Shooker Home for one, the mansion that was used as the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple another. There is one as well that stands up the hill at No. 8 Upper Wilkie Road, just a stone’s throw from another which had been a Japanese consulate and a girls’ home. That, unfortunately has been left vacant since 1991, when its occupant, Major Derrick Coupland, passed away, and the evidence of some two decades of abandonment has been pretty evident for a while.

The abandoned bungalow at Upper Wilkie Road which was the residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

The bungalow at No. 8 would probably be beyond restoration, but it would really be nice to have seen some attempt to preserve the building or at least something put up to remember Major Coupland, who died of bone cancer at the age of 70, for his contribution to Singapore and his role as the President of the Ex-Services Association which he held for some two decades right up to his death. Major Coupland was well known for his role during the war, being amongst the group of British officers who organised Force 136. He later served on the personal security staff of Lord Mountbatten. It is also notable for the part he played after the war, in which he was reported as being the force behind the Ex-Services Association’s charity work with war widows and those affected by the war. As a naturalised Singaporean, Major Coupland also contributed in our early days of independence, serving as a training officer for the first batches of National Servicemen in the late 1960s. He also served in the Singapore Volunteer Corps and was a founding member of the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, as well as serving as a director for the Singapore Council of Social Services for 7 years. He was conferred with an OBE in 1976 and is buried at the British Military Cemetery at Kranji.

Views around the crumbling former home of the late Major Derrick Coupland:


More on Mount Emily and Mount Sophia:

Closeby:

  • The former Mount Emily Girls’ Home – the oldest surviving building on Mount Emily and Mount Sophia which might have been built by the Sultan of Siak and was once used as a Japanese Consulate
  • And, what is probably the oldest on Mount Sophia, the former Tower House




A walk along the ridge: Commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang

14 02 2011

I took a walk with a group of about 50 yesterday morning, along a part of Singapore that I frequent only because of visits I make from time-to-time to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the course of my work, and in doing so, I learnt quite a lot about the area where one of the fiercest battles took place as the impregnable fortress that the colonial masters of Singapore had thought the island was, capitulated to the invading Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of the February of 1942. The walk had in fact been one that takes place on an annual basis to commemorate the battle, the Battle of Pasir Panjang, with took place over the 13th and 14th of February, in the final hours before General Percival did the unthinkable, being made to take a march of shame up the hill on which General Yamashita had set up shop at the Ford Factory, in an act of surrender that took place on the 15th of February. The walk was organised by a volunteer group, the Raffles Museum Toddycats of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, NUS and was led by the Siva whose intimate knowledge of the history as well as the flora and fauna of the area was supplemented by Dr Lai Chee Kien, of the Architecture Department who shared his insights on the architectural aspects of the NUS and in a few other areas as well.

Walking up Kent Ridge as the rising sun made an appearance. A solemn reminder of the occasion of the 13th of February 1942 when the when the 18th Division of Imperial Forces of the Land of the Rising Sun mounted their attack on what was then known as Pasir Panjang Ridge.

The walk which started at the University Cultural Centre, close to a corner of the rectangular area where the battle was enacted, at what is now the intersection of Clementi Road and the Ayer Rajah Expressway, began with a short introduction and a walk eastwards up Kent Ridge Crescent to the sight of the rising sun, perhaps as a solemn reminder of the battle during which the forces of the Land of the Rising Sun overran the determined but outnumbered defenders of the Malay Regiment that set out to defend the geographical feature that is now known to us as Kent Ridge, and continued along the length of the ridge eastwards towards what is now known as Bukit Chandu. Along the way, our guide Siva was not only able to share his knowledge of the battle as it played out, but also on some history of the area, the etymology of Kent Ridge and Marina Hill, as well as on the flora and fauna of the area.

Along the way, our expert guide Siva, was able to share many different facets of Kent Ridge, including on its flora and fauna.

The Simpoh Air and Resam Fern are fast growing plants commonly found on Kent Ridge as well as much of Singapore taking over much of the land that is cleared. The leaves of the Simpoh Air are used to wrap Tempeh.

The Battle of Pasir Panjang, sometimes referred to as the battle of Pasir Panjang Ridge, involved an invasion force of some 13,000 troops of the first wave of invading Japanese forces of the 18th Division sweeping down from the west towards the city. The ridge was defended by the remnants of the Malay Regiment, in which the origins of today’s Malaysian Armed Forces lie in, a poorly trained and ill prepared group of men who had been tasked to defend the approach to the ridge, the Gap but instead bore the brunt of the thrust of the invasion force. The accounts of this battle are well documented on the wonderful resource page that the Toddycats have put up, which can be found at this link, as well as in a newspaper report in the Straits Times of 13 February 1967 entitled “Fire and Death on Opium Hill” (on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Battle).

Kent Ridge features many wonderful bungalows that would once have housed military personnel on a featured that gave a commanding view of the western coastline and area around the ridge.

Much of the land around was used for plantations of among other plants, included rubber trees and nutmeg, and has since been taken over by Secondary Forest.

One of the interesting reminders of the military past of the ridge is an outpost, a collection of four flat roofed buildings that served as a lookout point over the southward facing slopes of the ridge. The roofs made the cluster of buildings, which are set on three levels, easily camouflaged. Much of the area is inaccessible to the public as the buildings are in dilapidated state and it was a treat for me to see the buildings. Peeking into some of the rooms of the buildings, it was easy to identify the functions of the rooms as well as to recognise that the lookout would have been self-sufficient. There was one room that was obviously used as a kitchen and another with the remains of an old bathtub – but other than that, very little evidence of anything else remains.

One of the interesting remnants of the military past is the Outpost, a collection of four buildings that served as a lookout point, set up on three levels on the southward facing slopes of the ridge at Prince Edward Point.

The buildings of the Outpost feature flat roofs that can be easily be camouflaged.

A stairway providing communication between two of the three levels.



Another interesting set of facts that came out of the walk was the sharing by Dr Lai on the architecture of the NUS and the thinking behind some of the features which the architect behind the NUS shared with him. Among the interesting facts was one revolving around the use of over burnt bricks and the use of the primary colours for the features: yellow for the communication channels that provided the links to the various parts of the NUS laid over the ridge; red for the handrails – the orginals of which have mostly been replaced; and blue for features such as doors.

Following not so much the yellow brick road, but the yellow ceiling is a sure way around the NUS.

One of the last remaining original red iron railings ….

Another view of the ridge …

Another remnant of the past?

Moving east to the area which was known as the Gap, where South Buona Vista Road meets Kent Ridge Road, Siva provided the evidence of origins of the name Kent Ridge and Marina Hill just across the road, on which Kent Ridge Park now sits. A plaque commemorating the visit of HRH the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, and her son the Duke of Kent, Prince Edward of Kent stands at the corner, telling us of the visit of the Duchess and the Duke on 3 October 1952 and the naming of the ridge after the visit of the royal pair as well as Marina Hill after the Duchess. The commemorative plaque is due to be shifted from its original position as there are plans to widen the road.

Siva speaking about the plaque commemorating the visit of HRH the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, and her son the Duke of Kent, Prince Edward of Kent.

A close-up of the commemorative plaque which provides the evidence of the etymology of Kent Ridge as well as Marina Hill. It was in honour of the visit on 3 October 1952 that the plaque was laid on 23 February 1954 and that the name of Pasir Panjang Ridge was changed to Kent Ridge.

Across South Buona Vista Road, part of the ridge had to be skirted around due to it being occupied by the premises of the Defence Science Organisation – but we were able to continue further down to where a creek was behind Normanton Park where we were shown the Gelam tree, a member of the Eucalyptus family, also know as Kayu Putih – its oil is used for medicinal purposes and bark is apparently used as caulking material in traditional wooden boat building. It was from here that we made our way back up the ridge to where Kent Ridge Park sits.

Two of the participants in the walk near Marina Hill.

Part of the creek near Normanton Park.

Guide Airani showing the leaves of the Gelam Tree.

The bark of the Gelam is used as caulking material in traditional wooden boat building.

Scenes of autumn in Singapore?

The thin tree trunks of the secondary forest in the area.

Back up on the ridge at Kent Ridge Park, we were able to take in the commanding view which made the ridge an important military asset, and we made our way (some of us, muscles aching) then to our intended destination, Bukit Chandu, via a canopy walk that provides a wonderful northwards view beyond the ridge as well as of the forest below (as well as of some of the colourful inhabitants of the forest that inlcuded a Green Crested Lizard). And after what seemed like a very long walk some five hours after we set off, we arrived at midday at Bukit Chandu or Opium Hill, named after an opium processing plant that had featured at the foot of the hill – the scene of the final stand on the 14th of February 1942 of C Company of the 1st Battalion of the Malay Regiment and on which the Reflections at Bukit Chandu Museum stands as a reminder of the valiant efforts of the men of the Malay Regiment. Leaving the hill, it wasn’t the sore muscles that made the biggest impression, but the overload of information provided by the guides and the great sense of appreciation for the men who fought so gallantly in defence of freedom.

The flight of stairs back up to the ridge.

The group at the top of the ridge.

The ridge at Marina Hill provides a commanding view of the western harbour.

As well of the reclamation works that are extending Singapore’s southern shores.

A memorial plaque commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang at Kent Ridge Park.

The view north-east from the canopy walk from Kent Ridge Park to Bukit Chandu.

The canopy walk.

A resident of the ridge, a Green Crested Lizard, says hello.


Resources on the Battle of Pasir Panjang and on Kent Ridge:

A Pasir Panjang/Kent Ridge Heritage

Fire and Death on Opium Hill

Reflections at Bukit Chandu

The Battle of Pasir Panjang Revisted


More blog postings on the walk:

Fifty people and two dogs on the Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk, by N. Sivasothi a.k.a. Otterman, on Raffles Museum Toddycats!

The walk to commemorate The Battle of Pasir Panjang! by Leone Fabre on “my life in Singapore”.


The next Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk would take place on 12 February 2017. For more information and to signup, please click on this link.






The human train to the Sunset

24 01 2011

It was on a fine Saturday morning, that I decided to take a four and a half kilometre walk that was organised by the Nature Society of Singapore, along a part of the industrial history of a Singapore that was still finding its feet in the uncertain climate that had surrounded Singapore in the 1960s. It was at a point in time when Singapore was contemplating joining what was then referred to as the Federation, the Federation of Malayan States, better known as Malaya, that work on the Jurong Industrial Estate, a massive project that played a significant part of the island nation’s rapid industrialisation in its early years. There is no doubt that the transformation of a marshy and hilly ground which would have been unsuitable for development had the effort that flattened the hills and fill up the swamps over a 3.5 hectare area to not just build an industrial complex, but provide housing and amenities in the area to the workforce that cost hundreds of millions – the biggest single project that had been taken on by the forward looking self-government and the brainchild of the then Finance Minister, the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee, contributed much to what was later, a newly independent Singapore’s economic success. Along with the industrial complex that was to set Singapore on its feet, there was of course the big effort to provide infrastructure to support the massive project, which included a somewhat forgotten extension to the railway network on the island, the old Jurong Line.

The now abandoned old Jurong Line was built in the 1960s to serve the Jurong Industrial Estate which was being developed.

The line runs through a corridor which has been relatively untouched by the modernisation that has overtaken the island over the last four decades and forms part of a proposal by the Nature Society of Singapore to preserve the former railway corridors as Green Corridors.

Jurong was in my childhood, one of the ends of the earth, being in what I had envisaged as a forsaken part of the island, good only for the seafood at Tuas village, that meant the long ride along the long and winding old Jurong Road that took one past the creepy stretch where the old Bulim cemetery was located. It was also the object of many school excursions to the area which had in the 1970s, the Jurong Birdpark added to the list of attractions that meant the long ride on the chartered bus which would pass the wonderfully wide tree lined avenue named International Road and culminate in the smell that we would always look forward to with anticipation – that of the aroma of chocolate that would invariably waft out of the Van Houten factory that stood on Jalan Boon Lay. It was only later that I came to know Jurong much better, spending 16 years of my life working in a shipyard at the end of Benoi Road.

The human train over the old railway line ...

It was around when I had first started work there that I started to notice the old Jurong Line, only once spotting a train passing over a level crossing that might have been at Tanjong Kling Road, not significant enough to have caught a mind that was distracted by the early days of my career. I had of course known about the bridges – a truss bridge, similar in construction and appearance to the glorious truss bridges of the main Railway Line that gives the Bukit Timah area some of its distinctive character, that crossed the Sungei Ulu Pandan that was visible from Clementi Road on the double decker bus service number 74 that I occasionally caught home from Clementi during my days in Singapore Polytechnic, as well as a less distinct on that crossed the Pandan River. Beyond noticing the obvious signs of the Jurong Line, I never did find the urge to learn about it until maybe a recent bout of nostalgia for the railway in Singapore brought about by the news that we will see the last of the trains crossing the island come the first day of July this year prompted the urge in me to explore what is now a disused line, and so when I heard of the ramble organised by the Nature Society, I decided to get dirty and muddy in the effort to learn more of the line.

The truss bridge across the Sungei Ulu Pandan at Clementi is a very well recognised landmark.

The walk along the line started at Teban Gardens, which itself was a housing estate that owes its own development to Jurong Industrial Estate which it sits on the fringe of. The estate was constructed in the early 1970s to supplement low cost housing in the area which had been in high demand, as more people found jobs in the Industrial Estate. The first flats were completed in 1976 by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) which had been the body responsible for the development of the Indistrial Estate and the flats in the area – along with other JTC developed housing estates in the west of Singapore, have a distinct character compared to the estates developed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) during that time. The start of the walk in the setting of the fast rising sun, allowed the plots of vegetables and fruit trees to be revealed along that part of the corridor along that area on the approach to the abandoned tunnel that runs under Jurong Town Hall Road, a scene reminiscent of some of the rural scenes of Singapore that I had hitherto thought had been lost in the wave of development that has swept over Singapore. It was nice to return to the that Singapore for a while and take in the “fresh” country air that came with what appeared to be the ample use of fertilizer on the plots of vegetables.

Crossing what were the tracks at Teban Gardens.

A scene perhaps from the rural Singapore of old - small scale farming takes place along some tracts of land through which the corridor passes.

More scenes from what rural Singapore might have once looked like.

It was refreshing start to the walk which continued through one of the five tunnels that the line had featured when it was operational, along with eight steel bridges, three of which we walked across or walked by. Built at a cost of S$5.9 Million by the Malayan Railway with a loan from the Economic Development Board (EDB), construction on the line started in 1963 and was only completed in 1966 with total of 19.3 kilometres of tracks laid, although a public run was made as early as in November 1965. The first service commenced with its opening by Dato Ahmad bin Perang, the then General Manager of the Malayan Railway on 4 March 1966. The line, which branched off at Bukit Timah station and ran under a tunnel across Clementi Road towards the west, ended up at Shipyard Road behind the Mobil Refinery which was then being constructed, with a branch line running to the National Iron and Steel Mills (the estate’s first factory) and Jurong Port, and had apparently not been as well used as envisaged, and operation of the line finally ended in the mid 1990s without much fanfare, with the land being returned to the State and lies abandoned for the close to two decades that have passed.

The line featured five tunnels, including this one running under Jurong Town Hall Road.

Another view through the tunnel ...

The light at the end of the tunnel

The line also featured eight steel bridges, including this girder bridge across the Pandan River, along its 19.3 km of tracks from Bukit Timah Station to Shipyard Road and Jurong Port.

The abandonment was certainly pretty much in evidence throughout the walk, not just with “Danger” signs pretty much rendering the tunnel and the bridges along the route places we should have really avoided walking through or on. Trudging through the dark and dingy tunnel certainly wasn’t a walk in the park as the thick layer of mud that lined the ground meant a slow trudge towards the light at the end of the tunnel which was a small opening in the zinc sheet that was meant to prevent access into the tunnel at the other end. The first of the bridges we passed was the one across the Pandan River, which looked a little worse for wear and was boarded up to prevent access to it. After that, it was through the Faber Gardens corridor where besides the obvious signs of the abandoned tracks, some being overrun by the vegetation, there were also some nice bits of nature to take in, with even a creek that showed evidence of a swamp in the area with some swamp plants being very much in evidence. It was in the area where two members of the Shield Bug family said hello without giving off the almighty stink that they are known for. This certainly is reason enough to support the Nature Society’s proposal to turn the rail corridors into green corridors.

Signs of abandonment were pretty much in evidence all along the tracks ... this one at the east end of the tunnel ...

... and one at the Pandan River bridge ...

A train undercarriage's eye view of the bridge over the Pandan River.

An unspoilt part of Singapore - a creek by the old Jurong Line ... one of the compelling reasons to support the Nature Society's proposal to turn the areas around the tracks into a Green Corridor.

Shield bugs ... not uncommon, but rarely seen in urban Singapore these days.

Nature disturbed by the line but relatively unspoilt.

and in some instances, reclaiming their place on the old abandoned tracks.

More evidence of nature reclaiming the areas around the abandoned tracks.

It wasn’t long before we got to the Sunset Strip – the area behind Clementi Town along the Sungei Ulu Pandan that leads up to Sunset Way. That was where we walked into the Chinese temple and a few more reminders of a rural Singapore that is no more, including a water hyacinth pond (water hyacinth ponds were commonly seen as these were often used as fodder for pigs as well as in ponds treating pig waste in the old kampungs). From there, it was across first the rickety old truss bridge that the lack of maintenance on it very evident and looks as it it would be destined for the scrap yard unless my friends in the Nature Society have their way … that provided an excellent photo opportunity and despite the signs warning us not to cross and the clear evidence of a structure that bears the scars of being left in the hot and humid environment without any renewal made of coatings that would have kept the corrosive effects of the environment at bay, proved to be a safer bridge to walk across than the operational ones along the Bukit Timah corridor. It wasn’t far then for the human train to reach the sunset – Sunset Way – where another bridge – a grider bridge provides an overhead crossing over the road … where the short, but very interesting walk ended, leaving me with a much deeper impression of the old Jurong Line, and certainly of the proposal to turn the corridor into a green corridor, which I hope, won’t as the old Railways across Singapore, ride and fade into the sunset.

A temple by the former Railway land along the Sungei Ulu Pandan.

More scenes of what rural Singapore might have been like in the area around the temple.

Crossing the truss bridge across Sungei Ulu Pandan ...

Another view across the truss bridge.

The last leg of the walk towards Sunset Way.

The girder bridge over Sunset Way.

The view across the girder bridge at Sunset Way.





The last memories of the rural Singapore of old

17 01 2011

I must admit that there was a time when I would have been reluctant to set foot in a kampung (village) in Singapore being very much the urban kid that I was growing up in the new highrise village of Toa Payoh. Back in the early days of Toa Payoh, much of Singapore still lived in the attap and zinc roofed wooden houses set in the densely packed villages all over the rural parts of the island. I had myself, had several experiences of a kampung in my early days, having been made to visit a so-called “sworn-sister” of my maternal grandmother at least once every Chinese New Year when we would spend most of the second day at the chicken farm in Punggol which she and her husband had in their care.

Despite my reluctance to visit kampungs in my early childhood, kampung days were never far away with regular visits to one in Punggol.

The visits to Punggol would inevitably mean that I would have to bear a few hours of boredom, stuck in the confines of what served as the living and dining room of the house with the simple furnishings of a formica topped folding table, a few stools, a food cabinet, two armchairs, and a small coffee table to keep me company. All there was to break the monotony of the room would be the sound of the Rediffusion speaker breaking the relative silence of the room, as I impatiently waited for one of my parents to make an appearance. The great outdoors where my parents would invariably spend the first part of the visits at wasn’t something that I was exactly enamoured with, particularly the fresh country air that would be laced with the smells that came from the rows of chicken coops nearby, a mixture of the smell of chicken feed and chicken droppings, with that of the generous amounts of natural fertiliser that would be used on the numerous plots of vegetables growing around. The fascination that I had with some of the livestock certainly wouldn’t have been enough to presuade me to move from my perch on one of the stools, let alone step across the threshold to join my parents in admiring the ripening array of tropical fruits that awaited their harvest outside.

It certainly has been a long time since I last took in the sights of zinc roofed wooden house in Singapore.

Not all kampungs are made the same of course, and I certainly, as a casual visitor, appreciated some of the coastal villages a lot more than I did the one I regularly visited at Punggol. My earliest encounters with the villages by the seaside would have been at Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuruh in my very early years, passing through on my hoildays around the Tanah Merah and Mata Ikan area. It only much later in life that I got to wander around some of them in earnest, with one on our northern shoreline just east of the Mata Jetty at the end of Sembawang Road, being one that I would visit often, Kampung Tanjong Irau. The coastal villages were usually more pleasing to the eyes, and it was always nice to encounter the often colourful sight of fishing boats ashore and fishing nets strung up to be mended. This sight would often be accompanied by the whiff of the sea that would be mixed with the smells left on the nets that the catch the nets had held, carried by the gentle breeze from the sea.

The smell of fishing nets was something to look forward to during visits in my childhood to the coastal villages which I seemed to enjoy more.

It was in the latter part of the 1980s that I started to lose touch with the kampungs that I knew, as the busy schedule of my tertiary education and National Service, as well as time spent away from Singapore, took me away from the routines that occupied my childhood. Distracted by what was going on in my life then and the years of my career, the opportunity to say goodbye to the villages of my youth had soon passed me by, as it was during that time that, one by one, the villages that had been very much a part of Singapore’s rural landscape started to disappear as modernisation in Singapore caught up with them. My grandmother’s “sworn-sister” had during that time, been forced to abandon the lifestyle she had known all her life and resettled in Ang Mo Kio, just a stone’s throw from where I lived.

Zinc roofs were once common all over rural Singapore and started to disappear with the wave of urbanisation that swept through rural Singapore in the 1980s.

It was only well into the arrival of the new century that I realised that there had been one village, Kampung Lorong Buangkok, that had somehow resisted the tide of development that had swept through the island and it was in reading a New York Times article “Singapore Prepares to Gobble Up Its Last Village” in early 2009 that I had thought of having a look at what has been touted as the last remaining village on mainland Singapore. Having on many occasions cycled through the area during my teenage years, the village was actually tucked away in an area that was familiar to me, although it was the grounds of the road that led up to the mental hospital, Woodbridge Hospital, named after the main access road to the area, Jalan Woodbridge, that I took more notice of (Jalan Woodbridge has in the intervening years been renamed Gerald Drive in an effort by property developers to avoid any association housing developments in the area could have with the mental hospital (which has since moved to nearby Hougang and renamed as the Institute of Mental Health), but it wasn’t until the National Library Board organised a visit to the kampung recently that I got to have my look around.

The area around Gerald Drive bear very little resemblance to the road that I had once cycled around when it was called Jalan Woodbridge.

An old road sign with the old four digit postal code.

The visit was certainly one that was well worth the while, rather than having to explore the are on my own as besides navigating through the labyrinth that is the village, the guide, Mr Bill Gee, was able to also provide some information on the village as well. The village as it currently stands, sits on a one and a third hectare plot of land (equivalent to the size of three football fields) which is owned by a Ms Sng Mui Hong, a 57 year old resident of the village. Ms Sng had inherited the land from her father who had bought the land when she was three (in 1956), constructing a village which at its height occupied an area roughly twice its current size with 40 households living on it. Today, Ms Sng rents the zinc roofed housing units out to the 28 households that remain, keeping rents at levels that make the rents (by a long way) the cheapest on the island at between S$6.50 to S$30 (excluding electricity and water).

An address plate at a house along Lorong Buangkok where the last village on mainland Singapore stands.

A Chinese home at the entrance to the last village.

Lorong Buangkok as it looks today.

A well photograph sign points the way to the Surau (Muslim Prayer Room).

It certainly felt surreal walking through the kampung, especially in the context of what Singapore has become. The village did appear very much as if time has left it behind, as I weaved my way through the maze of wooden houses, each with a distinct character and colour. The houses were certainly typical of the kampung houses of old, with cemented floors and a grilled gap left between the zinc roofs and the exterior walls of wood to provide ventilation. Wood is used as a structural building material not just because that it is a traditional material, but also as the use of brick and mortar would render the houses too heavy to be supported by the soft muddy ground that lies below due to the area having once been a swamp which was fed by a creek upstream of Sungei Punggol, which my mother had been familiar with in her own childhood, as having lived at the sixth mile area of Upper Serangoon Road not far away, it was where as she would recall, “my father would jump into, not having a care in the world for the possible dangers that the waters held”, stopping the practice only after a mangrove snake had been spotted on one of their forays into the creek. There certainly still is some evidence of what was a brackish water swamp: mud lobster mounds and the red-brown petals of the flowers of the Sea Hibiscus tree are clearly visible on the ground in the area of the village just by what is now a canalised Sungei Punggol. Being built in a low-lying area where a swamp had formed, the village is also one that is prone to flooding, as the evidence – a flood level marker and a signboard providing information on days when there is a risk of flooding at road in from the main road, across from the well photographed sign giving directions to the village’s Surau (a Muslim prayer room), does suggest.

Mud Lobster mounds are clearly visible in the area near the canalised Sungei Punggol, bearing testament to the swamp that existed in the area.

The area is prone to flooding. A PUB signboard is used to inform villagers of days on which flooding is likely to occur.

A flood level marker is seen in the drain close to the PUB signboard.

In the vicinity of the village near where the flood level marker is, is the site of the former SILRA Home (a home for ex-Leprosy patients run by the SIngapore Leprosy Relief Association – hence SILRA) along Lorong Buangkok, of which the entrance remains with a wall on which the faint words “SILRA HOME” can be made out. The home moved to Buangkok View in 2004.

A wall is all that remains of the entrance to the former SILRA Home along Lorong Buangkok.

Many of the Malay and Chinese residents have lived in the village for well over forty years, with many not wanting to move out having been used to the laid back lifestyle and access to open spaces which moving into the modern suburbia would rob them of. It was certainly nice to encounter some of the villagers, who readily smiled at the curious group of visitors that had descended on the village breaking the calm and peace of the village, of whom I am sure they get too many of as interest in the last kampung has increased with all the publicity it has received in recent years. Peaceful the kampung certainly was compared to my first memories of the kampung in Punggol, where the were the sounds of the clucking of hens, the crowing of roosters, the quacking of ducks, the snorting and grunting of pigs and the barking of dogs never seemed to cease. It was in this sea of sounds that one which I would never forget would pierce through each evening – the unmistakable and shirll crescendo that was the chorus of pigs squealing as if they might have been singing for their supper.

The kampung's Surau.

The wooden houses each have a character of their own, painted in the different colours that add a certain charm to the village.

Other sights around Kampung Lorong Buangkok …

Modern times I guess have caught up with the last kampung - I mentioned my parents experience being the first in Kampong Chia Heng to own a TV in a previous post - back then, doors were unlocked and everyone in the village could walk into the living room to have a curious glance at the TV set.

A hinge for a gate ...

Clothes pegs on a laundry line.

A view through a set of bamboo blinds ...

A hibiscus in full bloom.

Ornamental flags flapping in the wind.

A resident on a bicycle.

Malay residents of the kampung.

The star of the kampung - a star made by Jamil Kamsah, a resident of the kampung.

A hurricane lamp ...

and another ...

One of the last places in Singapore to have cables overhead ...

A fallen fruit from a Starfruit tree ...

A Buddha statue.





Architectural masterpieces of KL: The Railway Station

13 01 2011

Of the four grand pieces of Moorish influenced architecture that the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur is blessed with, the old Railway Station is the one with which I have had the most interaction with, with it having been the destination and starting point of the many train journeys I made on the Malayan Railway. It was a place that brings many memories back of these journeys, and particularly of the first I had taken from the station on the return leg of that first journey I had made from Tanjong Pagar which I remembered for the wrong reasons.

The Moorish styled Railway Station in Kuala Lumpur is one of a quartet of buildings that Kuala Lumpur has long been associated with.

The station, another one of Arthur Benison Hubback’s magnificent works of architecture, complements another, the Railway Administration Building, just across what is now Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin (Victory Avenue prior to independence), which I introduced in an earlier post, with its whitewashed façade spotting the distinctive arches and domes that give the building a grandeur fitting of an old world railway terminal. Together with the Railway Administration Building and Masjid Jamek (both of which were set in motion on the Hubback’s drawing board), as well as the grandest of them, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the Railway station makes a quartet of Moorish influenced buildings that for a long time was what the city that grew out of a muddy confluence of rivers, had been identified with. These days, unfortunately, Kuala Lumpur seems to be identified with the monstrous pieces of modern architecture that rob these four buildings of the attention that they deserve.

From one of Hubback's masterpieces looking across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin to another. A view of the Railway Station from the Railway Administration Building.

The Railway Station in Kuala Lumpur was built during the period when a certain Mr. Charles Edwin Spooner (after whom Spooner Road in Singapore and Ipoh is named after), oversaw the expansion of the Malayan Railway, known as, with the formation of the Federated Malay States (FMS) in 1896, the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR), which included the link through the state of Johore which connected Kuala Lumpur with Singapore (although then the absence of a Causeway meant the crossing to Singapore was carried out by boat), in his capacity as the General Manager of the FMSR. Mr. Spooner was certainly influential as the Chief Engineer of the Selangor PWD, his prior appointment before taking up the position in the FMSR, having had his say in the design of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur, and skewing it towards a Moorish styled design, befitting of Kuala Lumpur’s position as the capital of a protectorate, the FMS, rather than a colony. He would have certainly had an influence in the building of the station as well, but unfortunately, he passed away in 1909 before the completion of the grand old building in 1910.

The Station Building (on the right) as well as the Railway Administration Building (on the left) across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin were built during the turn of the 20th Century and were designed by A. B. Hubback.

Besides that first ever journey that I made in the less than comfortable wagons of the Mail Train, I have had many more encounters with the station. It was in the early part of the 1990s that I made frequent trips by train, often catching the overnight sleeper, the Senandung Malam, from Singapore’s Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, on which I would be able to catch a reasonable enough rest, often waking up a the sight of strange bedmates in the form of the resident cockroaches. The approach to the station from Salak Selatan station was always something that I looked forward to with anitcipation as the train took a slow course past the Lever Brothers Building in Bangsar, and past the Brickfields area before the grey truss Sultan Sulaiman Bridge over which Jalan Sultan Sulaiman runs came into sight. The bridge would be the last sight before the station came into sight, with its distinctive domes atop minaret like structures which complemented the many arches that gives the building its Islamic flavour.

The Sultan Sulaiman Bridge provides is the last sight before the passenger catches the grand sight of the station on the north bound train.

The northbound approach to the station.

Stepping out onto the platform was always nice after the long journey where I would usually be greeted. Back then, non-passengers could get on the platform to send-off or receive passengers by buying a platform ticket for a small cost, and I was pleasantly surprised to find on my recent visit to the station that the ticket dispensers were still where they were. More often than not I would end up catching a ride from the side across from where the front of the station building was where the main public carpark was at. It was there as well that I could catch a taxi, buying a prepaid coupon from the taxi counter, wherever I did not have a ride. The occasions on which I had seen the front of the station was when I caught a lift in, either to catch the return train or to purchase tickets (I would buy my return tickets in Kuala Lumpur to avoid paying for tickets which were priced at the same amount in Singapore Dollars as they would in Malaysian Ringgit if I had bought them in Singapore). Trips to the station to purchase tickets did on many occasions end in frustration as I would very often be greeted by a sign at the ticket counter which read “Maaf, Komputer Rosak“, which meant “Sorry, Computer Breakdown (or Failure)” in Malay, which meant I would need to make another trip down to the station. It was on those occasions that I got to explore a little, walking around the driveway where security guards would be busy trying to get traffic moving as there would be many cars and taxis stopped there, from which I could get a peek at the equally magnificent Railway Administration Building across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin.

Stepping out onto the platform was always nice after the long overnight journey.

The public could gain access to the platforms in the old days by buying a platform ticket from one of these dispensers.

Trips to the station to purchase tickets were very often frustrating affairs as I was often greeted by the sign "Maaf, Komputer Rosak" at the counter.

A disused Train Departures board at the rear side of the station building.

The rear of the station building where the large public car park is.

What used to be the taxi booking counter where coupons could be purchased for taxis taken from the station.

The driveway at the front of the station.

This time around, my visit was very much prompted by the nostalgia I have for the many journeys I had taken out of Tanjong Pagar, as well as to visit the Railway Administration Building across the road. I had also thought of seeking out the Station Hotel, which wasn’t operational during my previous visits to the station. I had heard about the revival of a so-called Heritage Station Hotel at the station only to be frustrated by the chains and padlocks that greeted me as I walked towards the entrance. The Railway Station was one of three that had a Station Hotel, the others being the other Hubback designed station in Ipoh, and the southern terminal of the FMSR at Tanjong Pagar. The one at Tanjong Pagar had long ceased operations, leaving possibly the one in Ipoh to be the last of the Station Hotels. The hotel had initially opened with six rooms in August 1911 before ten more rooms were added, and in a report in 1915, the hotel was said to “compare favourably with any (hotel) in the country”.

A sign showing that a "Hotel Heritage" had operated at the station. The station was one of three that had a Station Hotel operating in the building, the others were the stations at Ipoh and Tanjong Pagar.

The quest to visit the Station Hotel ended in disappointment as the chain and padlock greeted me instead of opened doors.

A peek through a window and through another window of the lobby of the former Station Hotel.

The station now serves as a commuter train station, with the brand new KL Sentral taking over in 2001 as the main train station in Kuala Lumpur. Housed within the station in what was the main hall is a Railway Museum which opened in 2007. This was a little disappointing on the whole, but does provide displays of memorabilia associated with the history of the railway, including old station clocks, weighing scales and even the bone of an elephant that had been hit by a train trying to protect its herd.

The station is now used as a Commuter Train station ...

... as well as a museum. Some of the exhibits include old signs, weighing scales and old station clocks along with other memorabilia.

Another exhibit from one of the predecessors to the FMSR ...

There was even a bone of an elephant who died defending his herd from an oncoming train.

More views in and around the station.

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New Year’s Eve with a Concubine: a stroll around the streets of Old Ipoh

3 01 2011

One of the wonderful things about wandering around old towns in Malaysia is their ability to delight you with a few surprises from time to time. One such town (or city as it is now) is Ipoh, which I have passed through many times over the years without paying much attention to, which I had decided to spend a night at recently, motivated primarily by the desire to pay a visit to the grand old Railway Station building given to the city by one of the architects that Kuala Lumpur owes its rich architectural heritage to, with the bonus of the promise of the sumptuous treats that awaits the visitor to the city.

Motivated by the desire to have a look at the magnificent piece of railway architecture designed by A. B. Hubback, I decided to spend a bit more time in Ipoh than I normally would have thought of spending.

Ipoh had always been a town that I had not paid much attention to, often serving as a mere stopover on journeys to the north and the west of the town. It is a town that I have always associated with the tin mines that brought the town much of its status and wealth in the days gone by, one characterised by the many grand old buildings in the old town and the large bungalows along the approach into town that greet the visitor. My first ever visits there had been on an ambitious road trip my father took the family on in the early 1970s, when we had stopped first to pay a visit to the parents of his Brother-in-law who lived in Canning Garden on the way from Cameron Highlands to Penang, which I remember very little of except for sweltering in the mid day heat. We did also stop on the return trip – an unscheduled stop forced upon us by the temperature that I was running, to consult with a doctor and get some rest to recover before setting off for Kuala Lumpur.

Ipoh is named after the Ipoh, Epu or Upas Tree which was apparently abundant in and around Ipoh. This Ipoh Tree stands in the Town Square just in front of the Railway Station.

There were two other visits that I had made during my youth, both en route to Pulau Pangkor. One was notable more for the return coach journey on the Mara Express on which left passengers in a state that wasn’t far from a homonym of Mara in Malay. The other was when we had actually spent a few days – once again at Canning Garden where we stayed with the parents of a colleague of my mothers. That trip I remember most for being bored, mah-jong being the source of adult entertainment, thus leaving my sister and myself, the only juveniles stuck within the confines of the four walls and looking forward to the forays made into town for meals for which I remember the crunchy bean sprouts most and perhaps the sight of the old Cold Storage Supermarket which somehow caught my attention. It wasn’t some 25 years after that, at the beginning of 2008 when I had a short stint in Penang, that I visited Ipoh again, once again for a short stopover driven by curiosity of a place I had only vague memories of. On that and a subsequent stopover I made at the end of 2009, there wasn’t really much to change my impression of the town, which is in fact the administrative and commercial capital of the state of Perak, based on its reputation as being not much more than a sleepy hollow.

Ipoh, set against the backdrop of limestone hills has a reputation of being a sleepy hollow.

This time around, equipped with a little more time than I had given myself on my other recent visits, I was able to see a part of Ipoh that had previously escaped me. I was indeed surprised by its architectural heritage around a part of Ipoh that I had not previously known – seeing only in photographs the magnificent Railway Station and the beautiful building that is home to the sister institution to my own alma mater, St. Michael’s Institution.

Ipoh has some architectural masterpieces including St. Michael's Institution which was built over a period of 30 years from 1922, which is a sister institution to my alma mater in Singapore, St. Joseph's Institution.

After a early morning exploration of the beautiful Railway Station of which I would devote another post to, I was able to take a stroll around another of Arthur Benison Hubback’s masterpieces – the Town Hall, which has sadly fallen into a state of disrepair – although signs of restoration work around the rear of the building which was once the Post Office were evident. The Town Hall was built by the Public Works Department (as were the Government Buildings of that time) as part of an effort to provide Ipoh with public buildings that were “worthy of the town” in the early part of the 20th Century, the same effort which provided the Railway Station and the Town Square that separates the two magnificent edifices which were meant to provide, as the town planners had put, “a fine entry into the town“. Construction on the Town Hall and Post Office commenced in 1914 and after a delay due to the late arrival of materials from England, the building was completed in 1916. The Post Office moved in early 1917.

Ipoh Town Hall, which also housed the Post Office at the back of the building, was another building designed by A. B. Hubback.

A view of one of the wings of the Neo Classical styled Town Hall.

Inside the Town Hall.

Some of the other notable buildings in the vicinity that I was able to see on my stroll around the area just behind the Town Hall, bounded by Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road), Jalan Dewan (Post Office Road), Jalan Sultan Yussuf (Belfield Road), and the Padang are the High Court, built in Neo-Classical style and completed in 1928; the Straits Trading Building (now occupied by OCBC) built in 1907 in the Italian Renaissance style; the Chartered Bank Building built in 1924; the Art Deco styled Mercantile Bank (1931); the Perak Hydro Building (1930s) which housed the Perak River Hydro-Electric Power Company which supplied power to the tin mines around Ipoh; the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931), built in the Neo Renaissance style and was for a long time the tallest building in Ipoh until the post-independence era; and the building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant from 1923 – reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Malaysia which was started by a Hainanese immigrant and catered exclusively to European Miners and Plantation Owners. Along Jalan Tun Sambanthan (Hale Street) by the Padang, there is also a row of terrace town houses worth a look at which once was occupied by the practices and residences of legal professionals.

The High Court building is another notable building in Ipoh, just across from the Town Hall.

Another view of the High Court.

The Straits Trading Building (1907).

The Chartered Bank Building (1924).

The Mercantile Bank Building (1931).

The Perak Hydro Building (1930s).

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931) which for a long time was the highest building in Ipoh.

The building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant, reputedly the oldest restaurant in Malaysia.

Across Jalan Tun Sambanthan from the Padang, are a row of pre-war town houses which housed the offices and residences of legal professionals.

So what does all this have to do with the concubine in the title of this post you may ask? Well, the stroll did certainly help in working up an appetite and in deciding to head to nearby Leech Street or what is now Jalan Bandar Timah where I was given to understand had some of the best “Sar Hor Fun” – flat rice noodles (commonly referred to as Kway Teow in our part of the world) of which Ipoh has reputedly the best (in terms of it being silky smooth), served with shredded steamed chicken and prawns in a clear chicken broth, in town, I stumbled upon another of the delightful surprises Ipoh held in store for me: Panglima Lane. Panglima Lane or Lorong Panglima is a narrow alleyway lined with two rows of two-storey pre-war houses that date back to the turn of the 20th Century. The lane had apparently been a hotbed of vice activity, home to gambling, prostitution and opium dens, which later became a residential area from which it got its name “Second Concubine Lane” being one of three streets where the Chinese wealthy had housed their concubines. Today, what greets the visitor are the crumbling and closely spaced units, some still occupied, and others, structurally unsound, lying abandoned. Signs of life are still very much in evidence around the occupied units – a well known restaurant occupies one of the units close to the main road beyond which the sight of laundry poles overhead, potted plants, opened doors and bicycles and tricycles greet the eye, along with evidence of the units that are slowly but surely falling apart. There are apparently plans to conserve and redevelop the houses along the lane, which I guess is something to look forward to, and something that has to be done before it all crumbles away.

A delightful find off Jalan Bandar Timah (Leech Street) is Lorong Panglima, a narrow street which is also known as "Concubine Lane".

Two rows of houses dating from the turn of the 20th Century line both sides of Concubine Lane, some showing signs of age and neglect. The lane was once a hotbed of vice activity and later became a residential area where rich Chinese men kept mistresses or concubines.

Another view of Concubine Lane. Some units still serve as residences, while some have been abandoned and left to crumble.

A tricycle outside a house in Concubine Lane.

More signs of life.

Windows on Concubine Lane.

A peek into one of the abandoned units on Concubine Lane.

As an added treat, I had my bowl of “Sar Hor Fun” in a coffee shop on the ground floor of a building on Leech Street that was built in the 1920s, as a hostel for performers at a Chinese Opera theatre that was just next door to it (since demolished). It was really a toss-up between the “Sar Hor Fun” stall next door at No. 73 which seemed more popular, and the one at No. 75 (Kong Heng Coffee Shop) where the so-called Dramatists’ Hostel was housed. I went for the one at No. 75 perhaps for the history of the building and wasn’t disappointed. The bowl of silky smooth noodles in the tasty chicken broth (which didn’t at all feel like it had been flavoured with MSG) was one of the best I have tasted. What struck me sitting in the coffee shop was that besides the bowl of noodles, people were also eating satay – which came from a well-known stall at neighbouring No. 73 – satay where I come from is usually only eaten only in the evenings. With the bowl of noodles finished, there was only one thing left to do … that was to sip on the steaming hot cup of Ipoh White Coffee, before heading back to the hotel for a rest.

The former "Dramatists' Hostel" along Leech Street once was home to performers of the Chinese Opera Theatre that stood next door (since demolished).

The ground floor of the former "Dramatists' Hostel" now houses the Kedai Kopi Kong Heng, at which I had a piping hot bowl of the well known Ipoh Sar Hor Fun.

A view from the window of the coffee shop.

The very satisfying bowl of "Sar Hor Fun" that I had.

The Sar Hor Fun stall at Kong Heng.





Architectural masterpieces of KL: The Railway Administration Building

28 12 2010

These days most would associate Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, affectionately referred to as KL, with some of the modern landmarks that have risen in a city that itself rose out of the confluence of the muddy Gombak and the Klang Rivers. KL is a city that I have been very fond of, visiting it on an annual basis since the 1970s when it took six hours on the old trunk road in the back of my father’s car. It is a city that I have long associated with food and shopping, usually ending up staying in budget accommodation off the main shopping belt of Bukit Bintang which also gave access to the wonderful street food in the Jalan Alor and Tong Shin Terrace areas.

Kuala Lumpur features some magnificent architectural masterpieces from the turn of the 20th Century including the Railway Administration Building which was completed in 1917, which is sadly now overshadowed by the new icons such as the Petronas Twin Towers.

It wasn’t until perhaps the 1990s that I started to notice some of the wonderful architectural masterpieces from the turn of the 20th Century, having had the independence to wander around some of its streets, such as the beautiful Sultan Abdul Samad building and Masjid Jamek, and using the trains as a means to travel to KL, who could not but notice the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and the magnificent Railway Administration Building just across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin from the station.

One architectural masterpeice, the KL Railway Station, seen through the arches of another, the Railway Administration Building (now the KTMB HQ) across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin. Both buildings feature Morrish influences and were designed by A.B. Hubback.

With much of the focus on the new icons of KL, less attention is now placed on these mainly Moorish architecture inspired buildings – the work of the Public Works Department, the PWD (which was incidentally led by the very able Mr Charles Edwin Spooner at the end of 19th Century, before he was appointed the General Manager of the FMS Railways in 1901 – thus having a hand in the Railway Buildings as well). The Masjid Jamek, as well as the two Railway Buildings built in the early part of the 20th Century were designed by an architect with the PWD, a Arthur Benison Hubback, who incidentally rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the British Army during the First World War, and had the good fortune of working under the architect of Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Arthur Charles Alfred Norman. Besides being responsible for some of the iconic architecture of KL Hubback also was responsible for works such as the Ipoh Railway Station and work in the sister colony of Hong Kong, the most notable work being the terminal station of the Kowloon to Canton Railway at Tsim Sha Tsui (which sadly was demolished in 1977, leaving only the Clock Tower, which now serves as a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui, behind).

The former Kowloon Railway seen during construction in 1914. It was demolished in 1977 with only the Clock Tower, now a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui, remaining. The station was designed by an architect with the Selangor PWD, A.B. Hubback who was responsible for some of the iconic buildings of Kuala Lumpur (source Wikipedia).

Tsim Sha Tsui's historic clock tower (1915) ... the last remnant of the Kowloon Railway Station.

The Railway Administration Building, now the Headquarters of KTM Berhad (KTMB), has been one that I had longed to visit for a long time, but somehow never got to in all those years passing through the Railway Station. It was one that I would always hold in awe, with its age browned façade dominated by moorish styled arches and domes. Based on the information plaque at the entrance to the compound, the building is a “fine example of Moorish architecture reflecting the Ottoman and Moghul glory of the 13th and 14th Centuries blended with Gothic and ancient Greek designs of the 14th Century. The ground floor is adorned with 97 large frontal Gothic arches and 4 smaller arches. The high and wide verandahs skirting the building create a cooling effect and are suitable for the constant high climatic temperatures in Malaysia. The first floor has 94 large arched windows of Gothic design and 4 circular arches of smaller size. The second floor has 171 Gothic arches and 4 large and 12 smaller circular arches. Five domes sit majestically on top of the building, each surrounded at four corners entwined columns. They are of orthodox Greek design typical in the 14th century. This historical building suffered serious damage twice in its lifetime, firstly during the Second World War when its North wing was bombed and secondly when the same wing on the second floor was gutted by fire in 14 November 1968.

The moorish inspired age-browned façade and the main central dome of the Railway Administration Building in KL.

Another view of the age-browned façade of the Railway Administration Building through one of the arches.

Stepping into the building for the very first time, I could not but be amazed by the sheer splendour of its Moorish inspired design. As the information plaque rightly describes the verandas, they are indeed cool and airy, and dominated by a wonderful row of Gothic styled arches that brings to mind those of the interiors of some of the magnificent Gothic cathedrals and churches of Europe and perhaps the Mosque of the Caliphs in Cordoba and to an extent CHIJMES in Singapore. Unfortunately, the upper floors of the building are out of bounds, being where the offices of KTMB are located and my exploration of the building was confined to the ground floor. One of the features that can be appreciated from the ground floor at the main entrance lobby of the building is the beautiful central staircase which spirals below the central dome of the building, featuring some wonderful wrought iron work on its banisters for which a visit to the building is certainly worthy of. If you are ever in KL, do take the time to visit this magnificent building, one that is often passed over for some of the more modern icons of a city that is in fact blessed with some wonderful architectural masterpieces, particularly those given by those highly talented colonial architects who played a big part in the infrastructure development not just of KL but in some of the other British colonies at the turn of the 20th century.

The central staircase below the central dome provides access to the upper floors of the building (which is out of bounds).

The central staircase.

A photograph in the hallway showing the building and the railway station.

The building also features some beautiful ironwork.

A window seen through one of the frontal arches.

A view across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin through one of the arches.

Magnificent gothic arches from the exterior corridors of the building.

A view of the Gothic arched corridor at the back of the building.

A broken part of the buildings cornice lying at the side of the building.

A view of the staircase at the wing of the building.

A semi-circular flight of steps at the wing of the building.

An old signal post on display at the front of the building.

The frontal arches.

In the gardens in front of the building.





Getting a piece of the Pye (television and the history of television in Singapore)

27 12 2010

Television is one of those things we seem to take for granted these days, along with the many conveniences of life that we see and use. Television runs for 24 hours a day now, and now offers a vast array of entertaining programmes from the popular Korean dramas, documentaries, children’s programmes, reality shows and live sports broadcasts all in crystal clarity through means such as cable and satelite – a far cry from what it was like in its early years when it offered a few hours of evening entertainment in warm and fuzzy black and white. By the time I came along, television had taken root in Singapore, preceding my own arrival by about a year and a half, and by the time I began to appreciate television, the likes of one of the first ever soaps, Peyton Place had taken Singapore by storm, as well as popular series such as Combat! which I never failed to catch an episode of, were names that we associated television with. The evening’s news and the newsreels that followed were also popular with viewers as was Sesame Street, which was first screened in the year I started school, 1971, as well as the many movies, including the Pontianak and P. Ramlee ones that helped entertain my maternal grandmother. There were also some of the other programmes that somehow caught my imagination, among was one that featured the energetic Jack LaLanne, and another which had the amusing Soupy Sales making an appearance in “What’s My Line”.

Peyton Place – one of the original Soaps, took Singapore by storm.

Combat! was one that I never missed an episode of!

I suppose television back in those days can be said to have had a similar impact on society and on children of my generation as much as the internet and other forms of the modern media are having on the children of today. It certainly played a part in shaping my life and interests that I had in life. Besides the programmes that we got each day, one of my deepest impressions of black and white television as it was in my formative years, was seeing the newsreel of Mankind’s first landing on the moon. By the time I had gotten to watch that, my parents had already moved on to their second television set, a 21 inch locally produced Setron set, which I remember gave excellent service right up to the days just before the Christmas of 1973. That was the year just before colour television was introduced in Singapore and why I remember that was how we had the television tube replaced on Christmas eve and it being Christmas eve, my parents invited the repairman to stay for some refreshments, during which time the newly replaced tube imploded, leaving us with a television-less Christmas.

The Jack LaLanne Show!

Soupy Sales in ‘What’s My Line’

During a recent chat about the early days of television with my parents, the subject of their experience with their very first television set came up. It was in the early days of television in Singapore that they had bought that set, one selected based on the best picture quality out of a row of sets displayed at a shop, which my mother remembered as a 14 inch table top Pye (up to that point – I had not even heard of the brand) – one which my mother said gave no end of problems. It cost them what might have been considered to be a large sum of money in days when there often wasn’t much spare cash to go around to enable one to indulge in the simple luxuries in life. That was when they were still renting a house in the former Kampong Chia Heng, off Moulmein Rise and being the first ones with a television in the kampung, by the time they sat down to watch their first programme on television, news had spread across the kampung and they had the company of people that they did not even know in the living room of the rented house!

What my parents’ first television might have looked like – a Pye 17″ Television from the 1960s.

Reading up a little on the introduction of television in Singapore, I was able to find out that television, Television Singapura, was launched to the masses at 6 pm on the 15th of February 1963 by the then Minister of Culture, the late S. Rajaratnam. The first evening’s programme schedule was to have lasted an hour and forty minutes, and included a short film on Singapore, a cartoon, the news, a half an hour feature, and a variety show, ending transmission. For the pilot service, transmission was scheduled for an hour or so each day for six weeks, before a four hour regular service was launched by the then President, Yusof Ishak on the 2nd of April that year before being extended to six hours a day later in the year which also saw a second channel being launched. At the introduction of television, some 2400 television sets had been sold. To reach out to the masses, television units were also installed in public areas such as Community Centres. The television brands that were on sale at that time included household names which I was familiar with from the 1970s including Grundig, Normende, Telefunken and Sierra, which we don’t really hear of these days and the sets had cost between S$350 to $1200, with screen sizes ranging from 14 inches to 23 inches. Colour television was introduced to Singapore in 1974, with a pilot service being run from 1st August of that year, with two hours of colour programmes shown each weekday and four hours each weekend. 1974 was also the first year in which the final of football’s World Cup Finals, held in West Germany that year was telecast live, and football fans actually got the additional treat of watching in full and vivid colour the marauding orange shirts of Holland take on the white shirts of hosts West Germany in a pulsating match on 7th July 1974 (prior to the actual launch of the pilot service). It was reported that within the three days prior to the finals, 1000 colour television sets had been sold – and my father was among those who bought one just to be able to catch the finals in colour.

The finals of the 1974 Football World Cup was the first live World Cup .





Following the star down Orchard Road

25 12 2010

Every year now, as part of its campaign to draw in the tourist dollar, Singapore transforms what is its main shopping street, Orchard Road, into a wonderful sea of lights in anticipation of what actually is a religious celebration, that as a nation, it has somehow embraced. So with an old classmate who now resides halfway across the world in town for a few days, a few of us decided to join the crowds thronging Orchard Road and take in the bright lights and snap a few photographs along the way. The light-up, now very much a feature of Christmas in Singapore, has been an annual affair since the very first street-wide light-up was organised in 1984 by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) as the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) was know then. That initial light-up had lasted for just 20 days, being launched on 13 December by the then Chairman of the STPB, Dr Wong Kwei Chong, and running up to New Year’s Day. Following the initial success of the light-up, it was extended to 37 days the following year, becoming the annual affair it now is, and this year, the light-up runs for 44 days from 20 November to 2 January. I guess that initial light-up was in keeping to what Christmas was being transformed into in Singapore (and many other parts of the world), a celebration that transcends religious and cultural boundaries, one that sparks a frenzy of shopping and feasting that makes it an annual season of joy for the retailers and restaurateurs, and one that has perhaps taken on a nationwide importance.

It wasn't three wise men but five wise guys who decided to follow the star(s) down Orchard Road.

Walking down Orchard Road and taking in the lights, it is hard to imagine what Orchard Road might have been like some three to four decades ago, and much less what Christmas was about back then. That was a time when Christmas was a simpler, quieter and perhaps more personal affair. While, gift-giving, a tradition that in fact dates back to pre-Christian pagan practices (which Christians adopted together with the time of the year when the birth of Christ, the central figure in Christianity, is celebrated), and now is maybe seen to be associated with the gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh that the three Magi, the Wise Men or Kings of the Orient brought with them when they followed the proverbial star to the east to the manger where the newly born Christ Child had lain in, was very much being practiced, it was mainly between relatives and close-friends, and was never really the expensive affair that it is these days. That was a time of course when even decorations were simpler and a lot more modest than they are these days, with only simple cut-outs and other decorations mounted on the façades of the large department stores – certainly not the elaborate decorations and lightings that we see these days.

A walk down Orchard Road offers a peek into the window of the Commercial side of Christmas in Singapore.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

For us, taking a walk down wasn’t so much for spiritual reasons (other than to partake in a few glasses of spirits at the end) or to reminisce about Christmases of the past, but to take in the lights and action of a city that has left simplicity behind and to catch up with each other. After all, that is what Christmas is really all about! With this I would like to wish one and all a very Happy Christmas! May peace, joy and glad tidings be with all!

Every year in the lead up to Christmas, Orchard Road is transformed into a wonderland of lights.

The appearance of new malls such as ION with lighted façades has added to fairy land of lights.

Shaw House was one with relatively modest decorations.

ION Orchard.

A shop display at ION Orchard to entice the Christmas Shopper.

Not everyone could wait until Christmas to open their gifts.

Street vendors were doing a roaring trade.

In the lead up to Christmas, entertainment was also provided for the crowds on Orchard Road.

Silhouettes of the crowd of people thronging Orchard Road against the back drop of the best dressed building, Tangs.

There was even a procession of floats to add to the bright lights.

Christmas trees came in all shapes and colours. Sizes were mostly XXL.

All that glitters is the gold of Ferrero Rocher. A close-up of the Christmas Tree outside the Heeren.

Signs of the times!

The writing's on the wall this Christmas!

More of the lights over the Stamford Canal ...

Roman gladiators descended onto Orchard Road ... together with angels and a few Wise Men!

Not a case of too many cooks spoiling the kebabs ...

On the blocks to be the new kid on the block next year? Construction activity at the former Orchard Emerald site.

On the rocks this Christmas ...

A red light district off Orchard Road ...

An inevitable end to our walk ... a search for a watering hole ...





The Malaysian Settlement in Singapore and the memory of Charles Edwin Spooner

20 12 2010

There is an obscure little corner of Singapore which many do not notice, nestled between Kampong Bahru Road and the railway yard that stretches to Keppel Road. Stepping into the area, you could quite easily forget that you are still in Singapore except for the two blocks of flats that resemble our own blocks of public housing built by the HDB in the mid 1970s, as you will be overcome by a feeling of stepping into a different world. It is a different world in many ways, being part of the land which is owned by the Malaysian State Railway, KTMB, and very much a part of the lost world within the KTM Railway Land that with the agreement between the Singapore and Malaysian Governments to redevelop the land in place, that will probably be consumed by modernity which has relentlessly swept across much of the island in the last three decades.

A lost world exists in Kampong Bahru ...

Access to the area is via Spooner Road, a name strange enough to have caught enough of my attention when I was in school to remember that I had a schoolmate (who I wasn’t really close to), who we referred to as ‘Spooner’ (for obvious reasons), who for some reason resided in one of the flats there. The flats of course, sitting on KTM land, belongs to the Railway, as much as the train yard and the Running Bungalow that sits at the entrance to the area on Spooner Road. I am not too certain when the current two blocks of flats were put up. Judging from the style of the blocks, it would have probably been around the mid 1970s, but they were definitely there at the end of the 1970s when I was in school with ‘Spooner’. The Running Bungalow itself was built in the early 1930s, part of the effort that has given us the magnificent Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Railway Deviation of 1932 that provided the Bukit Timah area with some of its distinctive character. Before the current blocks of flats, there had been the Perak and Selangor flats which had served as the quarters of the Railway Workers in Singapore.

Access to the lost world is via Spooner Road, off Kampong Bahru Road.

The Running Bungalow was built in the early 1930s together with the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

A reflection of the Running Bungalow in a puddle of water on Spooner Road.

View of Spooner Road, the Running Bungalow and the KTM Flats.

While the redevelopment of what must be rather valuable land in an area that is on the fringe of the CBD is probably inevitable, I do harbour some hope that the road, Spooner Road, or at least the name of the road is preserved in some way. The road is named after none other than Mr Charles Edwin Spooner, who came over as a State Engineer with the Public Works Department (PWD) in Selangor after a stint with the PWD in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Among the projects that he oversaw and possibly influenced being in charge of the Selangor PWD was the construction of the wondrous and iconic Moorish styled Sultan Abdul Samad building which many now identify Kuala Lumpur with. In 1901, Spooner was appointed as the first General Manager of the FMS Railways (FMSR) and in that capacity oversaw the rapid expansion of the predecessors to what became the Malayan Railway, including the construction of the 120 mile long Johore State Railways linking Gemas to Johor Baharu, and the magnificent station building in Kuala Lumpur, which was completed a year after Spooner’s untimely death in 1909. It was after Mr Spooner, that not only saw a Spooner Road named after him in Singapore, but one associated with the Railways in Kuala Lumpur (I am not sure if this exists anymore) and also in Ipoh (which is now named Jalan Spooner). And it is for all his achievements, spending a better part of his life in the improvement of the colonies both in Ceylon and Malaya that we owe Mr Spooner at least a place in our own history and for our future generations not only to honour the memory of Charles Edwin Spooner, but also to serve as a memory of the Railway line that once ran through Singapore.

Some residents of Spooner Road enjoying the lifestyle I had growing up ....

Another resident of Spooner Road.

The lost world of Spooner Road. There was a Spooner Road in Kuala Lumpur and one in Ipoh (which is now Jalan Spooner) as well.

More views around the flats:

Lifts at the block of flats at Spooner Road.

Enjoying a ride around Spooner Road.

Laundry pole supports...

Window louvres ...

More window louvres ...

The land on which Spooner Road and the building sit are very much Malaysian owned.

More views around the Railway Yard:

Views around the train yard ...

[This post is also featured on Trains and Boats and Planes and One° North Explorers.]


[For more posts related to the Railway Land in Singapore, the Shift of the KTM station from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands, and of Train Journeys on KTM, please click on this link.]






Memories of the lost world that was Somapah Village

16 12 2010

I have but vague memories of a world that once lay at the gateway to my playground by the sea. It was a world that now seems so distant in time and in space, and one that for me comes back in bits and pieces. That was the world that was once the bustling Somapah Village, located close to the 10th milestone of Changi Road, a place that was a major settlement in the area, deserving a mention in the RAF Information Booklet for New Arrivals for its Veterinary Clinic from which dog licenses could be obtained: “Travelling from Changi, Somapah Road is the first turning left after the overhead pedestrian crossing in Suicide Village – an off-white bungalow almost at the end of the road”.

Somapah Village was one of the main settlements in the area and served as the gateway to some of the villages that lay along the old coastline (source: National Archives).

My acquaintance with the village goes back to the early days of Singapore’s independence, when my parents who were in the civil service, made regular use of the Government holiday bungalows near Mata Ikan Village. Somapah Village was where Somapah Road met Upper Changi Road and served as a gateway to the coastal villages that lay to the south-east of it, including Mata Ikan, which was located a mile or so down the road at the coastal end of Somapah Road. Passing through the part of the village which had always seemed a hive of activity in the mornings was also the trigger for me to look out for the red swastika that would be perched on the top of a building, having developed a fascination for the symbol from the many encounters I had with the Nazis that had to do less with my overactive imagination than with the nightly dose of the exploits of Vic Morrow’s character Sgt. Saunders on Combat! The red swastika belonged to the Red Swastika School that was in a quiet part of the village along Somapah Road on the right as we made our way towards Mata Ikan, and was the left facing symbol used by the Taoist Red Swastika Society as opposed to the right facing swastika used by the Nazis, not that I noticed it then.