A picture from the past

6 08 2013

Looking through old photographs of what perhaps was a lost decade for me, the 1980s, I stumbled upon a rare one of Changi Beach, taken some time in 1987. The beach, one on which I have had many experiences of going back to the late 1960s, had by that time already lost its popularity as a place for a family outing – missing were the beach side cafes, the wooden sampans, deck chairs and rubber tubes from a time when you could drive right up to the edge of the beach and find a shady spot under a ketapang tree to park your car under.

JeromeChangiBeach 1987s

The coarse sand beach in the 1980s was one abandoned by many in Singapore for the man-made beach lining the reclaimed land at East Coast Park. It is perhaps beyond the foreshore that does make the photograph interesting. Along the horizon two kelongs, structures erected to harvest fish from the sea, can be seen. The structures which once dominated the seascape off much of Singapore, are now a rare sight.

Knobbly sea stars.

Knobbly sea stars seen at Pulau Semakau – once a common sight on the seabed off Changi Beach at low tide.

The kelongs remind me of happier times past, when wading out to them at low tide was possible, across knee deep water over a seabed of sea grass meadows abundant with sea life.  It was on the many walks my parents took me on in the late 1960s and 1970s that I was to catch my first glimpse of knobby sea stars, fiddler crabs, gong-gong and sea cucumber – marine creatures that are rarely seen in our waters these days (we do also have to head to our offshore islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Semakau to see them).

The shallow waters during low tide off Changi Beach provided hours of endless fun with the creatures that lived amongst the sea grass. A fiddler crab is seen here.

A fiddler crab seen at Chek Jawa off Pulau Ubin.

Sea cucumber.

Sea cucumber – also once a common sight off Changi Beach.

There are also several less than happy memories I can find in the photograph. Scanning the horizon, a glimpse of Pulau Tekong is seen on the right. It just west of this spot where I would board a Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) from the beach as a National Service recruit for a dreaded 40 minute ride on an open deck to the island. The RPLs were the means by which personnel were ferried to and from the two Basic Military Training camps on Pulau Tekong in those days. Having to beach also meant the RPLs could only come in at high tide – which translated into shortened weekends for us as when we could get back and had to go back in, was very much determined by the time when the tide was high. That meant we would sometimes get out only in the afternoon, only to have to get back to the beach on the morning of the following day. It is a lot easier these days, recruits leave from and arrive at a purpose built ferry terminal, and without having to wait for the tide, all it does take to get to Pulau Tekong is a less than 15 minute ride on a fast ferry.


As with the means by which personnel are sent over to Pulau Tekong, much about Changi Beach has changed. Many of the ketapang, acacia, pong pong and casuarina trees under which we might once have found Malay ladies weaving ketupat pouches from young coconut leaves, have since been uprooted. In their place, we now see a footpath with stone benches and trees carefully arranged where cars could once drive up to. The beach, littered with the deposits of the tide: seashells, mangrove propagules and drift wood, and the trunk of a coconut palm, is otherwise empty as is the horizon. It is reflective of the world we now find ourselves in, a world in which we have discarded much of who we were and one which we fill with the emptiness we now seek for our souls.


Crossings through the passage of time

26 11 2010

Writing about parts of the Malayan railway land in Singapore that I am familiar with has somehow fuelled a desire to discover parts that are less known to me, in an attempt to capture images from the railway line, parts of which would have gone back to the days of the Kranji-Singapore Railway in the early 1900s. Most of what we see today has in fact come about through the Railway Deviation of 1932 – one that gave us the two stations that we see standing today, Bukit Timah and the grand old dame at Tanjong Pagar, as well as some that have disappeared altogether. One of these in fact left its legacy behind, in the form of a name of an area – one that I have always had a fascination for, Tanglin Halt. As I have discovered on my walks of rediscovery through parts of the Bukit Timah corridor in which many of the railway “landmarks” I had become acquainted with on the many road and train journeys through the area are still around today, much of the land that the railway runs through look as if time in its passage through Singapore, has somehow passed by, leaving sights that belong in a landscape that we would have been more familiar with half a century ago.

Parts of Kranji Road, where the northernmost rail Level Crossing is in Singapore, looks very much as if time has passed it by.

On my more recent wanderings to parts that I am less familiar with, I was happy to see that time does seemed to have also stood still in many of the areas around, giving me as I strolled through them a sense that I was wandering through a world far removed in time and space from the big city Singapore has become. One of these wanderings took me to the north of the island to what are the three northernmost level crossings on the island, one of which is perhaps after the one at Choa Chu Kang Road, the busiest in Singapore, at Kranji Road. It is here that queues of vehicles form waiting not just for a train to cross, but due to the narrowness of the road lane where the crossing is, has the flow of vehicles across it restricted to one direction at a time. This along with the one I explored earlier at Gombak Drive and is one with that old fashion gate that gives a level crossing the character it should really have, and is close where an abandoned camp stands, skeletons of numerous Nissen Huts bearing testament to the forgotten era during which the camp would have been used. The road is in fact straddled by two former camps, the one on the other side appearing to be abandoned as well. Not being able to stop my car to explore the area on foot – I decided to move to the next crossing further south along Woodlands Road – at Sungei Kadut Avenue.

The northernmost rail Level Crossing in Singapore at Kranji Road. Traffic flow across the level crossing is regulated due to the narrowness of the road where the crossing is.

Skeletons of Nissen Huts at an abandoned camp along Kanji Road, in the vicinity of the Level Crossing bearing testament to a forgotten era during which the camp might have been used.

Another abandoned camp in the vicinity of the Level Crossing at Kranji Road.

The Sungei Kadut is today more known for the industrial estate which has been associated with sawmills and the woodworking and furniture industries since the 1970s. A mangrove swamp had in fact occupied much of the area where the industrial estate sits up to the end of the 1960s when the area was reclaimed to house concentrations of sawmills from areas such as Kallang, which were being relocated due to urban renewal. The crossing at Sungei Kadut Avenue seemed to be one of the more dangerous around for some reason – with a collision occuring between a train and a car in the mid 1970s when the gate keeper had failed to closed the gates at the crossing, in which the car driver somehow escaped injury.

The crossing at Sungei Kadut Avenue was where a train collided with a car in the mid 1970s.

The signal hut at the Sungei Kadut Level Crossing.

Abandoned houses belonging to KTM near the Sungei Kadut Level Crossing.

The refreshing rural scene around Sungei Kadut.

Further south along Woodlands Road, there is a smaller level crossing than the one at Sungie Kadut. This crossing is perhaps the prettiest level crossing in Singapore … with an old style signal hut set in a clearing off Stagmont Ring Road. The crossing is just about two kilometres north of the largest one at Choa Chu Kang Road, and one which I should have remembered from my days in National Service where I had a stint a a nearby camp which involved many exercises in the vicinity of the tracks, but somehow have no recollection of. What is interesting in the area is an old fashioned petrol station with an awning structure that suggests that it might not have changed very much over maybe two or three decades. There used to be a few of these along Woodlands Road – most had fallen victims to the widening of parts of the road. There is another old style station – an old Shell station nearby at Mandai Road – one that I would pass during my National Service days taking the bus service 171 towards Sembawang Road on the way back home from camp … I had a quick glance at it making my way down Woodlands Road and was happy to see that it was still there – signs of a recent makeover does tell me that it would be there for some time to come. Most of what we can see today in the area may soon be gone though, as once the terminal station for the southern end of the railway moves to Woodlands in mid 2011 – vast tracts of land which now belong to to the railway would be available for development and with that, we may see the last of the land that time forgot.

Stagmont Ring Road is where the prettiest level crossing is in Singapore.

The signal hut and level crossing at Stagmont Ring Road.

The crossing in operation ...

The outhouse at the level crossing.

The rural scene by the level crossing at Stagmont Ring Road.

Sights around the level crossing at Stagmont Ring Road.

An old fashioned petrol station along Woodlands Road near Stagmont Ring Road offers a feel of the countryside.

Eternal Spring 恆春

10 05 2010

It was on a cold early April morning that I found myself in southern Taiwan, arriving by a red eyed chartered flight from Singapore. There was still a 100 kilometre journey to make, and sitting on the back of a long opened 13 ton truck wouldn’t have been the means most of us would have chosen to do it with had we realised that discomfort that the two hour journey would bring. But there wasn’t much of a choice for us, being part of a support group for a military exercise that lay some 2 months ahead. And so, at the break of dawn, having been kept wide awake by the continuous stream of the more than chilly April air perched on the back of the speeding 13 tonner, we were relieved to see the truck make the turn into the dirt track that served as the roadway into the army camp that was reserved for our use. In the half light of dawn, the sound of teeth chattering was broken by the excited howl of one of my companions announcing that he had spotted a horse. A few chuckles quickly followed as a quick scan of the open field that lay to the left of the track revealed a couple of cows and nothing much else.

Sorting the stores out, camp near Hengchun Taiwan, 1987.

Having been used to the relative comfort of the army bunks we had in Singapore, where at its worst, the creaky springs of the beds would sag at anything that weighed a little more than a feather, seeing where we were to spend the next few months came as a rude shock. What I saw reminded me of the scenes of the prisoner of war camps on the Burma railway that I had seen in the movies. Lined up against the opposite sides of the walls in the long bunk were two rows of double decked wooden platforms which served as beds. On this we were to be allocated a one metre wide space on which to sleep on and store our belongings. This didn’t seem so bad when I got to see the state that the toilets were in! We had a few weeks before the stores we were sent to maintain were to arrive by ship, giving us some time to get the place set up.

With nothing much to keep us occupied, with civilisation nowhere in sight as well as being confined to camp seven days a week with only an evening out, the “gift shop” which seemed worth visiting for the two beauties – the fair skinned local girls who manned the shop, became a focal point. In reality, there wasn’t really much on offer, save the instant noodles, Taiwanese style, sealed in a styrofoam bowl which were displayed in the glass counter, which could be filled at the hot water dispenser at the end of the counter. This was a novelty to many of us then – it wasn’t until later that the idea caught on in Singapore.

South Gate, Hengchun, April 1987.

We were allowed a three hours out once a week on Thursday evenings, when the night market came to town. Town we were to discover was Hengchun (恆春), which serves as the gateway to what must be one of the prettiest parts of Taiwan – the Kenting National Park. A walled town, Hengchun has most of its walls and gates still intact, and the area we often ended up in was close to the south gate. Apart from the night market, the town wasn’t notable for much except for the delicious street food and refreshing chilled red tea. The first evening I was there, I managed to get the essential sleeping bag which made the wooden platform I slept on a little more comfortable, visit to a mantou (steamed bun) shop, and fill my stomach with a hearty bowl of spicy beef noodles.

The night market always provided the locals as well as us with some form of entertainment. What would almost always greet the visitor was the pungent smell of fermented beancurd being toasted over the fire, and the greasy smell of Taiwanese sausages being grilled. There were always lots of stalls with nothing that seemed worth buying. Entertainment could usually be found at the corners of the market area – medicine and ointment vendors would always be ready to provide a show in an attempt to convince an eager audience of the positive effects of the medicines they were attempting to sell. There were those that placed red hot pieces of metal bare skin on various parts of the body and those that would attempt to inflict wounds using knives and chains to prove the protective benefits of their ointments. There were of course those that tried to draw the attention of a mainly male audience with skimpily dressed women who sometimes showed little bits of flesh that would make a gentleman blush!