Retracing footsteps

12 09 2018

I enjoy visiting Kuala Lumpur for a variety of reasons. The Malaysian capital, known by its acronym KL to most, provides me with a sense of having returned home home in a way that home – some 200 miles away in Singapore – is no longer able to do.

An old market in KL.

It would seem strange, if not for the history Malaysia and Singapore shares and perhaps, for the frequent visits I have made to KL since I was a child. In the bits of the past, found in the modern of the bustling metropolis, I especially find joy in. The disorder of their shophouses, the clutter along the five-foot-ways, the colours and smells of old street markets and old coffee shops, are that reminder of the Singapore that I grew to love as a child that I would never otherwise be able to ever see again.

Lunch time at Lai Foong.

An old coffee shop that I remember from my childhood visits to the city, the Kedai Kopi Lai Foong, is one such reminder. An institution in a city in which there is no shortage of such old gems, the 1950s coffee shop seems little changed from the 1970s and is quite reminiscent of the busy urban centre coffee shops of Singapore’s lost past.

Mirror, mirror on the mosaic wall.  Mirrors were commonly given as opening gifts at coffee shops in Malaysia. Mosiac or kitchen tiles were commonly used on the walls of coffee shops both in Singapore and Malaysia as they could be easily cleaned and did not require frequent repainting.

Positioned at the corner of Jalan Tun H. S. Lee and Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, it sits just across Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock from Petaling Street (or Chinatown). That and its proximity to Central Market – now the touristy Pasar Seni, has meant that the coffee shop has long attracted more than its fair share of the local crowd as well as a steady stream of out-of-town visitors. With Tripadvisor now inflating the number of would be visitors, any attempt to seat oneself in the confusion of tables and chairs in the shop’s confines, presents quite a challenge. Any intent to savour some of the coffee shop’s famous fare must now be accompanied by the patience of a saint, some guile, and most of all, a fair bit of luck; all of which I must have had when visited the coffee shop for a bowl of its much-talked about beef noodles back in June.

A scene reminiscent of the coffee shops of old Singapore, with its stalls lining the outer edge of the shop.

A posting I made on Facebook of the bowl of beef noodles invited a comment from a locally based acquaintance, in which a recommendation was made to have the wanton mee at Kedai Makanan Toong Kwoon Chye, another old kopitiam. With its location along Jalan Bukit Bintang also presenting me with an opportunity to reacquaint myself with an area of KL that I had lost touch with, there was enough of a motivation for me to hop on the MRT to Bukit Bintang, just a few days later.

Kedai Makanan Toong Kwoon Chye.

Despite the familiarity I had with the area, I had no impression at all of Toong Kwoon Chye prior to my June visit. I found it quite easily, tucked away in a quiet corner of the street. It might have been the time of the day but even if it was of a similar vintage to Lai Foong, Toong Kwoon Chye couldn’t have been more different. There was absolutely none of Lai Foong’s rush and time, seemed to slow to a standstill, the moment that I stepped into the coffee shop.

Furnished in what may be described as the classical kopitiam style, with marble topped tables and wooden chairs – sans the spittoons of course – Toong Kwoon Chye’s old coffee shop feel was made complete by its counter, even if it was somewhat more modern in looks than one might have expected. Just like any old coffee shop of the good old days, a row of clear-glass jars with red covers stood at one end, half filled with biscuits and other snacks for sale. With so much of a sleepy old out-of-town kopitiam vibe about it, it seemed fitting for me to while the morning away sipping on a cup of coffee and take the time to savour the plate of shredded chicken noodles that I had ordered.

The ebb and flow at Toong Kwoon Chye.

The lazy breakfast put me in the mood for an unhurried stroll, which first took me inside Sungai Wang Plaza. It was one of two interconnected malls from the 1970s I never failed to visit whenever I find myself in the area. The other, which I liked better, was Bukit Bintang Plaza. That has since made way for redevelopment. With little to distract me in Sungai Wang, I decided to continue my stroll outdoors instead and soon found myself retracing footsteps I must have last made some four decades past.

The changing face of Jalan Bukit Bintang – now missing BB Plaza.

The familiarity I had with Bukit Bintang had come out of numerous family holiday stopovers in KL. Holidays abroad in my childhood, with the exception of a visit to Thailand in 1978, invariably meant road trips across the Causeway. KL, a six-hour drive before the North-South Highway made drives a breeze, served as a break-journey point on the road up to more northerly destinations such as Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill (at which the Singapore Government maintained holiday facilities for civil servants). The combination of affordable accommodation, shopping and food in Bukit Bintang, made it a good location to put up in.

Tong Shin Terrace.

One of the things we must have done with sufficient regularity, for me to have remembered them in such vivid detail, were the walks to Chinatown. That took us down Jalan Alor or Tong Shin Terrace, and then west along Jalan Pudu. Both Jalan Alor and Tong Shin Terrace seemed to have retained much of their character, although I am told that Jalan Alor’s well patronised nighttime eateries now cater to quite a different crowd.

I found myself taking a little detour into the area’s back lanes, perhaps in the hope of finding a nasi lemak stall that we had stumbled upon during a June 1979 sojourn in KL. That visit to KL was one to remember for several reasons. It provided me with my first experience as a football spectator outside of Singapore. The match that I caught was also one of huge importance to the Singaporean football fan of the 1970s, the Malaysia Cup final.

The back lanes around Tengkat Tong Shin.

The final, played at KL’s Stadium Merdeka, saw Singapore take on a Selangor team that featured Malaysian footballing legends such as Mokhtar Dahari, R. Arumugam and Santokh Singh. The final that year was significant for the debut of the talented Fandi Ahmad, who was also playing in the competition for the first time. Fandi, then 17, would go on to illuminate the competition in which Malaysian state teams and Singapore featured.

STadium Merdeka today, surrounded by a development that is seeing the rise of Malaysia’s tallest building, a 118-storey tower that will also be the third tallest in the world.

As the match coincided with a trip we were making, we were able to obtain tickets at the stadium when they went on sale. That made it all the more memorable, as it meant that we were seated in a section occupied by the crowd of boisterous home supporters in a match in which controversial 66th minute Selangor goal proved to be a turning point. Mokhtar would add a second to complete a two goal victory for Selangor but all that is another story. What would also make that trip one to be remembered was the joy of discovering nasi lemak at its simplest, served at a makeshift stall.

A courtyard hotel.

There no nasi lemak to be found this time, not at least the manner in which that was served. However, the back lanes yielded several new discoveries. Spruced up and a lot less familiar, they now feature brightly painted wall murals, modern eateries and a very nice looking courtyard hotel.

A back lane eatery.

Back out from the back lanes, it all became familiar once more down Tong Shin Terrace. An old block of flats, which I had always assumed to have been a low-cost housing development, came into view. I therefore was quite surprised to learn with Google’s help that the development, the Blue Boy Mansion, was thought of as a landmark development when it was erected back in 1962.

The Blue Boy Mansion.

Inside the Blue Boy Mansion.

West from from Blue Boy Mansion along Jalan Pudu, just past Tung Shin Hospital was another familiar sight. Now in disguise as the modern looking Pudu Sentral, it was unmistakably Puduraya, for a long while KL’s main bus station. The station now sees just a fraction of the bus services that used to operate out of it. I realised how time has flown by in attempting to recall when I last took a bus out of the station. That was a trip to made in the mid-1990s to Kuala Kubu Bharu to catch another bus up to Fraser’s Hill.

Hitting Pudu Sentral meant that I was closing in on Chinatown. As there was still time to spare, I decided to make my way to Lai Foong  in the hope of satisfying an urge I was having for its char kway teow, only to find the stall closed. The disappointment of that, coupled with the rising heat and humid of the mid-June Klang Valley afternoon, made the lure of modern KL – in the form of an air-conditioned mall – hard to resist. I soon found myself in one to cool off and then have a late lunch, before I headed back to Petaling Jaya where I was putting up.

Char Kway Teow at Lai Foong.


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The SS2 market

8 09 2018

Photographs taken during a walk around the SS2 market in Petaling Jaya. Operating under the shelter of parasols and tarpaulins, the market is  one of only a handful of open air wet markets in Petaling Jaya.

 

 





Postcards from the South

27 07 2018

Introducing Postcards from the South.

The 394 page book, a work of love by its author Mahen Bala, offers a wonderful collection of stories of stations and interactions with them, previously unpublished photographs and maps, as well as a historic look at the southern stretches of the Malayan Railway – between Gemas and Tanjong Pagar.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Bukit Timah Railway Station as well as the Causeway, which provided a vital link to the Peninsula, also feature.
The book will go on sale in Singapore at Kinokuniya and Select Books in about 2 weeks time. More information on the book can be found at Projek Keretapi Kita.

Cover of Postcards from the South.

Bukit Timah Railway Station and one of its last Station Masters, Atan Ahmad (image : Projek Keretapi Kita).

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (image: Projek Keretapi Kita).






Revisiting KL’s kaki lima

26 06 2018

I love wandering around the “kaki lima” or five-foot-ways of old Kuala Lumpur. Full of life and character, they remind me of the lively and colourful five-foot-ways of the Singapore of my younger days.

The corridors are found along the Malaysian capital’s many old shophouses.  Seen also in most towns and cities across Malaysia and also in Singapore, the five-foot-ways (not necessary five feet wide) trace their existence to the Jackson (Singapore) Town Plan of 1822. The plan, which Raffles had a hand in, required that “all houses constructed of brick or tile should have a uniform type of front, each having a verandah of a certain depth, open at all times as a continuous and covered passage on each side of the street”.

More on five-foot-ways:

A five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan.

One along Jalan Hang Lekiu.

One along Jalan Tun Perak.

One along Jalan Tun H. S. Lee.

One along Jalan Petaling, with pavement fortune teller.





A journey through Tanjong Pagar in 1970

23 02 2018

There is always and element of romance connected with train journeys, especially the leisurely paced journeys of the past with which one can take in the magical scenes along the way that one can only get from railway journeys. LIFE Magazine’s Carl Mydans, a legendary photograph whose work spans several decades and includes an extensive coverage of Singapore prior to the war (see “A glimpse of Singapore in 1941, the year before the darkness fell“), took one such journey out of an independent Singapore some 3 decades later, capturing a Singapore we can no longer see but through photographs of the era. The set, also includes scenes along the journey to Bangkok, along with those captured at stopovers made in West Malaysia’s main urban centres.

The photographs of Singapore are particularly interesting. There are some of the old harbour, and quite a few of the twakow decorated Singapore River along which much of Singapore’s trade passed through. There are also several street scenes, once familiar to us in the area of North Bridge Road. A couple of quite rare shots were also taken at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station including one showing a steam locomotive of a 1940s vintage, which the Malayan Railway operated until the early 1970s. There are also images of the steam locos captured during the journey.

The photographs of West Malaysia are also interesting. The replacement of rubber trees with oil palm as a crop, which had been taking place in parts of the peninsula from the 1960s to reduce Malaysia’s reliance on rubber and tin was in evidence. This is something that I well remember from the road trips to Malaysia of my early childhood. Another familiar scene from those trips were of the padi fields, which the trunk road passing through Malacca seemed to weave through. This is something Mr. Mydans also seemed to have captured quite a fair bit of.

The departure platform at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station with a prewar relic of a steam locomotive.

Malaysian Customs Inspection at the Departure Platform.

The Supreme Court and the Padang.

Hock Lam Street.

Corner of Hock Lam Street and North Bridge Road.

North Bridge Road.


The old harbour (Marina Bay today)

View of Clifford Pier and the Inner Road, and Outer Roads beyond the Detached Mole. The view today would be towards Marina Bay Sands and Marina South.

Another view of the harbour – where Marina Bay Sands and Marina South is today. The Harbour Division of the Preventive Branch of the Department of Customs and Excise (Customs House today) can be seen at the lower right hand corner.

A rainbow over the harbour.


Boat Quay and the Singapore River

Walking the plank. Coolies loaded and unloaded twakows by balancing items that were often bulkier than their tiny frames over narrow and rather flimsy planks that connected the boats to the quayside.

A view of the stepped sides of the river around where Central is today.

Boat Quay.

Coolies sliding crates that were too bulky and heavy along the plank.

Lorry cranes were sometimes used instead.

But more often than not manual labour was used.

A view of the “belly of the carp”.


The Journey North

(with stops in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Bangkok)

A steam locomotive at what looks like Gemas Railway Station.

More steam locomotives (at Gemas?).

Inside the train cabin.

Train along a shunt line.

Rubber estates and rubber tappers were a common sight – even along the roads up north.

So were water buffaloes and padi fields.

Padi field.

Another view of a padi field.

Oil palms taking root. A drive to reduce Malaysia’s dependence on rubber and tin from the 1960s would see oil palms colour a landscape once dominated by rubber trees.

Another cabin view.

A break in the journey – a view of the Stadthuys Malacca.

Jalan Kota in Malacca.

View of the Malacca River.

The Arthur Benison Hubback designed (old) KL Railway Station .

Another view of the south end of the KL Railway Station – with a view also of the KL Railway Administration Building.

A southward view down Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin (ex Victory Avenue) with the KL Railway Station on the left and the KL Railway Administration Building on the right, also designed by Arthur Bennison Hubback.

The Railway Administration Building and Masjid Negara.

A view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left.

Another view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left and Dataran Merdeka on the right.

Sungai Siput Railway Station.

The Penang Ferry from Butterworth.

A view of Butterworth.

George Town – with a view towards the clan jetties.

The Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

Air Itam and the Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

What looks like the Leong San Tong in the Khoo Kongsi in George Town.

The Penang Hill funicular railway.

More padi fields.

Possibly southern Thailand.

Bangkok.





Laksa’s origins will surprise you

28 11 2017

I’ve always enjoyed a bowl of laksa. The dish, which has an amazing range of equally delectable localised variations, brings great comfort and joy to many in Malaysia, parts of Indonesia and Singapore. There is perhaps no other dish that can so strongly be identified with a locality. In its very basic form, laksa is a vermicelli like noodle in a broth.  While it can be said that it is in the countless variations of this broth, tempered by the influences of over a century, that has provided the various forms of the dish with its local flavour; its origins as a dish, how it morphed into what we see of it today, and even its rather strange sounding name, is a source of great puzzlement.

Singapore Laksa

One suggestion of how laksa got its name that has gained popularity is that it was derived from a similar sounding Sanskrit word for a hundred thousand. This, it is said, is an allusion perhaps to the multitude of ingredients that go into making the various forms of its broth the celebration of flavours that they are. I am however inclined to take the side of the suggestion that the wonderful encyclopedia of the world’s culinary delights, the Oxford Companion to Food, offers. That has the word laksa being Persian in origin. Lakhsha meaning “slippery” in old Persian, was apparently also used to describe noodles, which the book also credits the Persians with the invention of.

Sarawak Laksa

That latter suggestion will no doubt spark endless debate. There seems however to be evidence to support the assertion such as in the many noodle type dishes that are found spread across the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe – all with names that all sound very much like lakhsha. Examples of this are the Russian lapsha, the Uyghur laghman, the Jewish lokshen, the Afghan lakhchak, the Lithunian Lakštiniai, and the Ukrainian lokshina. The Italian sheet pasta dish, Lasagne, also sounds uncannily similar to old Persian for noodles.

Lokshen (photo: Danny Nicholson on Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0).

As with the variants of the Near East, Lakhsha seems to have become a similiar sounding laksa in this part of the world. Early Malay-English dictionaries, such as one published by R. J. Wilkinson in 1901, have laksa both as the word for ten thousand, as well as for a “vermicelli” – ascribing the latter’s origins to the same Persian word.  The use of the word as such is seen in several of the news articles of the day. One report, in the Malayan Saturday Post of 29 December 1928, shows how “Chinese Laksa” was then made, through a series of four photographs. As a word to describe a type of noodles, laksa is in fact very much still in use in places such as the Riau Archipelago. There, “lakse” or “laksa”, is taken as a noodle of a similar appearance to the laksa we find here made from the staple of the islands, sago.

R. J. Wilkinson’s “A Malay-English Dictionary” describes the word “laksa” both as a word for ten-thousand as well as for a kind of vermicelli.

Uyghur laghman noodles (Nate Gray on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

There also are early descriptions of how that laksa may have been prepared in the press. One, found in a 1912 report on hawker fare in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, describes what seems to be quite a different dish from the one we are now familiar with:

A familiar dish with the Chinese coolie and Straits school-boy is “laksa”. The vendor of this compound, vermicelli, “rats’ ears” (mush-rooms), and other things in a kind of soup, shouts out every now and then “Laksa a wun!” and many who taste it declare that it is A1.

Lakse or laksa, describes these noodles made from sago in Pulau Singkep in the Lingga group of islands in the Riau Archipelago.

One of the many ways in which laksa is served on Pulau Singkep is with a fish broth and sambal.

poem, penned in 1931 by a prominent personality Mr. Seow Poh Leng – a Municipal Commissioner and a champion of hawkers’ rights – provides an idea of how the dish had by the 1930s, started to evolve. An attempt to draw attention to the difficulties street hawkers faced, the verse also describes how a dough of ground rice became “lumps of tiny snow-white coils” when boiled and which was then “served with tasty gravy and a pinch of fragrant spice”. Published in the Malayan Saturday Post of 16 May 1931, the piece was the writer’s response to the death of a laksa vendor. The vendor had taken his own life after several run ins with the Municipal authorities that deprived him of his livelihood.

Laska Siam, served at another popular Penang laksa stall, this one at Balik Pulau.

By the 1950s, laksa as a dish, seemed to have already taken on several distinct styles. A 1951 article in The Singapore Free Press, “Let’s talk about food”, mentions two types of “Siamese” laksa: one sweet and one hot and sour, along with a “Nonya” laksa. The two variants of “Siamese” laksa are again mentioned in a 1953 Singapore Free Press article on food in Penang. The sour type “Siamese” laksa identified is perhaps the predecessor to the Penang or asam (or assam) laksa dish of today as another 1951 report, this time in The Straits Times on Penang, seems to confirm. The article draws attention to one of Penang’s attractions, Ayer Itam (now spelled Air Itam), to which the young and old would walk six miles or brave a ride on a crowded bus to. Ayer Itam, is identified as “the village with the famous Kek Lok Si”, and (a seemingly already popular) “Siamese” laksa (Air Itam is a location many in Penang flock to today for asam laksa).

A bowl of Penang or Asam Laksa.

Another version of Asam Laksa from Madras Lane in Kuala Lumpur.

What we can perhaps surmise from all of this information is that despite its shared name, laksa in its many variations are really different dishes. Built on an otherwise tasteless base of rice or sago vermicelli or a noodle substitute, how its various forms of laksa have been flavoured to excite the palate, says much about the invention and the creativity of the region’s pioneering food vendors.

Variation on a theme, Laksa Goreng (Fried Laksa), Peranakan style.

Lakse Goreng topped with crushed ikan bilis from Pulau Singkep.


A Hawker’s Lament
by Seow Poh Leng
(Malayan Saturday Post, 16 May 1931, Page 18)
We came from far Cathay, the land of old renown,
A livelihood to seek in this far-famed town.
My parents they are old but still must toil each day
My father selling bean-curds, my mother selling “kway”.
We left our home and kin to this far distant shore;
And promised to return to see them all once more,
To share with them and theirs what little we have made
By dint of patient toil, by means of honest trade.
By four o’clock each morning when you are all abed
The ‘laksa’ I’m preparing that people may be fed
I grind some rice to powder and knead it to a dough
Then press it through a sieve to a boiling pot below.
This stringy mass of flour which hardens as it boils
Is made up into lumps of tiny snow-white coils;
Then served with tasty gravy and a pinch of fragrant spice
My ‘laksa’ finds more favour than the ordinary rice.
In woven bamboo basket made up in several tiers
Are placed my tooth-some wares and the necessary gears.
In a gourd-shaped earthen vessel the ‘laksa’ simmers low,
All day aboiling gently on charcoal burning slow.
From street to street I wander, my pace a steady trot,
And bear my loaded basket as well as the steaming pot.
The noon day trade I seek and may with luck—oh rare !
Avoid the stern police who ask a certain share.
These guardians of the law with lynx eyes watch for me,
And more than do their duty unless I pay a ” fee.”
They see that I comply with what the by-laws state;
That is, whatever happens, I must itinerate.
Sometimes from sheer fatigue I pause some breath to take,
To dry my streaming sweat, to ease the limbs that ache;
And then the “Mata-mata” finds me resting there,
And forthwith to the Court I must with him repair.
And once – alas the thought! – in prison cell I lay.
The fine imposed on me was more than I could pay.
What use is there for me this arduous life to lead?
My humble cries for mercy receive but scanty heed.
By ceaseless toil I tried an honest life to lead.
If I the “tips” forget, the traffic I impede.
And for such bogus crime there is no other way –
Before the Court I’m brought and straightway made to pay.
I’ve plied my trade from childhood, the profits have been small,
Yet I would quit right gladly for any work at all,
Seek work at any distance – if only work there be
Without the constant harass and the unofficial fee.
A rickshaw puller – aye the “totee’s” job I’ll do.
I’ll go to Malacca, I’ll go to Trengganu.
Alack! my quest is vain, my faintest hope is gone;
My limbs they are weary, my heart with sorrow torn.
Good-bye the M.H.O., my last farewell to thee!
Good-bye to all M.C.’s, good-bye the I.G.P.!
You wish me back to China, you want me off the street;
Posterity shall know I die your wish to meet!
Not satisfied with fines the Magistrates impose
The dreary prison cell must add to hawkers’ woes.
My goods and property you wish to confiscate?
But here you will not win—the law will come too late!
Good-bye my parents dear, good-bye my kith and kin!
Think not the step I take a very grievous sin.
Right well I am aware of honour due to you;
And thank you from my heart for lessons wise and true.
To comfort your old age my level best I’ve tried.
My efforts seem in vain, the cruel fates decide.
I cannot stoop to crime and slur the family name,
So drink this portion dark, preferring death to shame.

A Malay laksa vendor in Penang, c. 1930s (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline | Mrs J A Bennett Collection/National Archives of Singapore).


 





The gun battery set up for the defence of Singapore at Pengerang

1 11 2016

Hidden in the vegetation on a knoll just by the Tanjung Pengelih Jetty in Pengerang is the little that remains of a 6″ gun battery that was set up for the defence of Singapore in the 1930s. The battery was one of several that came under the Changi Command. Positioned at the southeastern tip of the Malay Peninsula, the battery, along with others at Pulau Tekong and Changi, protected the eastern approach to the Straits of Johor and thus the Naval and Air Bases constructed up the strait at Seletar. All that now seems left of the battery – the guns were destroyed by the British just before Singapore fell, at least from their accessibility to the public, are the positions where Defence Electric Lights or DEL’s were placed.

Structures belonging to a DEL position at Tanjung Pengelih in Pengerang.

Structures belonging to a DEL position at Tanjung Pengelih in Pengerang.

One of the DEL positions, with part of its roof collapsed.

One of the DEL positions, with part of its roof collapsed.

DEL’s, powerful searchlights,  supplemented coastal artillery. They could be used to search for and pick out targets, a practice that apparently had been used by the Royal Artillery since the late 1800s. These searchlights would be mounted in fortified positions closer to the coast and housed in concrete emplacements . Essential electrical power would be provided by generators housed in well-protected engine rooms, often built deep into the terrain.

A view from the inside of the DEL emplacement.

A view from the inside of the DEL emplacement.

Singapore's Defences, 1937 (Source: Between 2 Oceans (2nd Edn): A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 by Malcolm H. Murfett, John Miksic, Brian Farell, Chiang Ming Shun.

Singapore’s Defences, 1937 (source: Between 2 Oceans (2nd Edn): A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 by Malcolm H. Murfett, John Miksic, Brian Farell, Chiang Ming Shun).

Such would have been the case with the searchlight positions in Pengerang. Its remnants include both searchlight emplacements and an engine room, as well as supporting infrastructure such as accommodation blocks and storage rooms. These are all placed on the small hill that lies in the shadow of Bukit Pengerang or Johore Hill, on which the two 6″ guns of the battery were positioned.

A 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

An observation post above the DEL emplacement.

An observation post above the DEL emplacement.

I managed to join a visit to the site over the weekend orgainsed by a grouping of urban exploration enthusiasts who collectively brand themselves as the Temasek Rural Exploring Enthusiasts or TREE. For the visit, the group had tied up with guides and representatives from several Malaysian organisations and groups. These were the Muzium Tentera Darat (Army Museum) in Port Dickson, the Yayasan Warisan Johor (Johor Heritage Foundation), the Malaya Heritage Group and the Jabatan Warisan Negara (National Heritage Department). We were also joined by a Soko Jampasri,  a Japanese researcher who is based in Bangkok. Soko brought with her a Japanese military account of the war, contained in a book published by the now defunct Imperial Japanese Army Academy.

Kapten Zuraiman of Muzium Tentera Darat.

Kapten Zuraiman of Muzium Tentera Darat.

Information provided by Kapten Muhd Zuraiman Abd Ghani of the Muzium Tentera Darat as well as members of the Yayasan Warisan Johor (Johor Heritage Foundation) and the Malaya Heritage Group, point to Pengerang, a remote and isolated corner of the Malay Peninsula, being among the last positions in Malaya to have been surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army. The army’s arrival coming a week or so after Singapore’s 15 February 1942 fall and this allowed several members of the forces based there to attempt an escape to Batam, where they were to be rounded up by the Japanese. Those that remained at Pengerang were captured and sent over to Changi.

Soko Jampasri, the Japanese researcher and Zafrani Arifin from the Malay Heritage Group.

Soko Jampasri, the Japanese researcher and Zafrani Arifin from the Malay Heritage Group.

Zafraini showing a map of the Japanese invasion of Singapore from Sako's book.

Zafrani showing a map of the Japanese invasion of Singapore from Soko’s book.

There was a little uncertainty if the guns at the position were fired at all in anger. Information provided in the Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn’s “Did Singapore have to fall? Churchill and the impregnable fortress” point to them being used to fire at a junk on 11 February 1942. The guns might not have been used again and were destroyed on 14 February 1942 along with those at Sajahat, Ladang, Calder, Sphinx and Tekong as the loss of Singapore seemed imminent. The gun positions on Bukit Pengerang are now within the confines of the TLDM KD Sultan Ismail, the Naval Base now at Tanjung Pengelih, and it is not known if any traces of their emplacements are still around.

Another observation position,

Another observation position,

An accommodation block.

An accommodation block.

One of the structures that remain is one that greets the eye just around the bend in the road from the jetty – a machine gun pillbox. The pillbox, which is now decorated will Johor state flags and a strange collection of old items, is quite readily accessible and is one that takes me back to the days of my childhood. There were many such pillboxes found across the southern shores of Singapore up to the early 1970s and several at the Changi area, including one at Mata Ikan where I would have the holidays of my early childhood at, served as places of play and adventure despite the strong smell of rotting matter that accompanied an entry into them. Most were removed as the coastline was being pushed out during the reclamation efforts of the 1970s. One that is left, at Labrador Park, now has its openings sealed and there no longer is a possibility of an adventure in them.

The machine gun pillbox by the coast and at the foot of the knoll on which the battery's searchlights were positioned.

The machine gun pillbox by the coast and at the foot of the knoll on which the battery’s searchlights were positioned.

Inside the pillbox.

Inside the pillbox.

Several other gun emplacements and positions remain intact, including the publicly accessible No. 1 gun emplacement at the Johore Battery in Changi, now topped by a replica 15″ gun as well some substantial remnants of the Faber Command positions in Blakang Mati. However, what is left now at Pengerang is especially of interest, as it is a reminder that the protection of the garrison island, even if it was to prove ineffective in the entire scheme of things, involved positions outside what we see today as the boundaries of Singapore.

The naval base at Tanjung Pengelih, with Bukit Pengerang in the background.

The naval base at Tanjung Pengelih, with Bukit Pengerang in the background.


More photographs of the structures associated with the DEL position:

A water tank.

A water tank.

Another view of the inside of the block.

Another view of the inside of the block.

Nature has taken over some of the spaces.

Nature has taken over some of the spaces.

The corridor of another block.

The corridor of another block.

Inside the block.

Inside the block.

A gun post near what appears to be a cookhouse.

A gun post near what appears to be a cookhouse.

A wash basin.

A wash basin.

Chimneys and what was a stove.

Chimneys and what was a stove.

The entrance to the Engine Room built into the knoll.

The entrance to the Engine Room built into the knoll.

An escape shaft from the Engine Room.

An escape shaft from the Engine Room.

A trunk in the Engine Room.

A trunk in the Engine Room.

A more recent addition, a Yeo's soft drink bottle next to the structure intended to support the generators.

A more recent addition, a Yeo’s soft drink bottle next to the structure intended to support the generators.

More trunks.

More trunks.

A tunnel.

A tunnel.


Further information on the Pengerang Battery and the Coastal Defences of Singapore: