Where slipways once lined the muddy banks of the Geylang River: Jalan Benaan Kapal

25 01 2010

My first taste of what life was in a shipyard – an eight week stint in 1982, part of a training programme I underwent, provided me with a first hand view of what the Geylang River and Kallang Basin was like then, one that I would not otherwise have had. The shipyard I was attached to was located at Jalan Benaan Kapal, near the area where the Kallang Indoor Stadium is today. The road had been named in Malay after the activities it was built to serve – Benaan or how it is spelt today, Binaan, the word for building or construction, and Kapal, meaning ship. Looking at the areas around Jalan Banaan Kapal today, it is hard to imagine that it was once had been a hub of activity, with a thriving cluster of family owned shipbuilding and shiprepair businesses. It was Singapore’s first purpose built marine industrial estate, set up based on the recommendation of a UN led industrial survey mission, put in place to identify areas of industrialisation had a potential to develop in what was a newly independent Singapore in the 1960s. With this, the area close to where the Geylang River empties into the Kallang Basin, including a 180 metre stretch of swamp, was developed into a marine industrial estate.

Once a swamp, the site of Singapore's first marine industrial estate, which was a mess of activity, now looking spick and span following a massive clean up effort.

The area where shipyards once would have lined the river side of Jalan Benaan Kapal on the right.

Jalan Benaan Kapal as seen today, close to the junction with Stadium Road, which would have led to the area where the shipyards once were located.

A building once used as workshops housing businesses supporting the marine industry.

Evidence of the industrial past of the area.

What greets the eye today is empty land, some disused workshop buildings and condominiums on either side of the river: Jalan Benaan Kapal on the Kallang side and Kampong Arang Road on the Tanjong Rhu side, where muddy banks laid with slipways, on which boats and small ships such as tugs could be up-slipped and repaired, and the clutter of rusting barges, ships and boats afloat once dominated the scene.

How the Geylang River looked - a slipway of a boatyard on the Geylang River.

Once a industrial area where the rank stench of a river carrying all kinds of flotsam and waste in its dark murky waters would greet each breath, is now a quiet scene of luxury condominiums and a sleepy, much cleaner and better smelling river.

A quiet scene of empty land and condominiums where once slipways, rusting barges and a mess of ships would have dominated the scene in what was Singapore's first marine industrial estate.

The trip to Jalan Benaan Kapal every morning back then would involve a bus ride on service 133 from my home in Ang Mo Kio to a bus stop in Kallang, close to where the Kallang MRT station is located today. Next would be the long half an hour trek to the shipyard that I would have to make. The trek would take me past the former Kallang Airport, which was then used as the People’s Association complex, and across the Nicoll Highway. Continuing, I would have to walk by the area in between the National Stadium and the Practice Track, past the area to the west of the Mountbatten Pitches, what is now an empty plot of land which was the Wonderland Amusement Park – in which I had my first  experiences of  roller coasters. This would now be where the large open car park by the Kallang Theatre and the Kallang Leisure Park is today. This would be where the end of Jalan Benaan Kapal was, at its junction with Stadium Road, where a cluster of small factory buildings would greet the eye and the end where most of the shipyards were located.

The former Kallang Airport, which was used as the People's Association HQ - a landmark that would have marked the start of the long trek from the bus stop I would alight at to Jalan Benaan Kapal.

Where the junction of Jalan Benaan Kapal and Stadium Road had been: now a bend in the road near the Kallang Indoor Stadium.

A row of what would have been workshops left behind along the stretch of Jalan Benaan Kapal where the shipyards once were.

Once in the shipyard, I would get into my blue overalls, and when it was time, make my way to the slipways of the yard. The view we got of the river from the vantage of the slipways – the clutter of ships and boats afloat in the river alongside rusting barges, was a sight to behold. But what I would most remember the Geyland River for was the smell that greeted me at the slipway! Each breath meant having to inhale the rank stench, a stench carried by the dark murky waters mixed with the smell of rotting seaweed and marine organisms  which had  been scraped off the bottoms of the boats and ships, that lay on the mud below, accompanied by the day’s collection of rotting carcasses, wood, rubber tires, plastic bags stained with oil, and whatever else the river carried from the numerous villages (many without sanitation), godowns, factories, and farms upstream.  Looking at and and taking a breath by the river as it was back then, it would have been hard to imagine that the river would one day be a source of clean water: the Kallang Basin, together with the adjoining man-made Marina Bay, is now a part of the downtown Marina Reservoir, created with the construction of the Marina Barrage, which has also cut the Kallang, Geylang and Singapore rivers off from the sea. Another thing that I would well remember was seeing an explosion as it happened, as I was peering from the forecastle deck of a ship across the river towards a barge afloat on the other side. I remember very vividly how at the very moment I had looked across, I could see the deck of the barge buckling upwards and the thunderous noise that accompanied a burst of debris that flew some ten metres up into the air that followed.

Sources of pollution along the waterways (Source: PUB)

The river today is a much prettier and cleaner sight, smelling a lot less than it used to: the result of a ten year effort undertaken to clean up Singapore’s rivers, and perhaps a much safer place to be on: the effort also meant the phasing  out of boat and shipyard activities in the area. These have been replaced by luxury condominiums on the Tanjong Rhu side, and empty plots of land along the Kallang side. Vehicles now run across the area of the river where ships and boats once cluttered it – both over it and under it: the construction of the Tanjong Rhu Bridge now links Tanjong Rhu with Kallang and a tunnel under the river, part of the newly constructed Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE). The construction of the bridge has also meant that Jalan Benaan Kapal has been cut into two: the section east of the bridge is now dominated by indoor sport facilities housed in the former industrial buildings, and the section west has been left with a row of former workshops, cut-off from its other half, and lying somewhat obscure and  forgotten. Forgotten as well, are the ship and boat yards and the workshops, which had possibly provided a vital contribution to the growth of a fledgling economy of a nation that many felt had little chance of surviving.

The Tanjong Rhu Bridge now links the Kallang area with Tanjong Rhu, allowing vehicular traffic over the area of the Geylang River where shipyards once featured.

What used to be a slipway lined river bank along Jalan Benaan Kapal now features an empty plot of land. There is evidence of the KPE tunnel which runs under the river in the form of a structure housing the tunnel's vents.

The road leading up to the Tanjong Rhu Bridge now cuts Jalan Benaan Kapal into two sections.

The section east of the bridge leads to industrial buildings which are now used for sports and recreation.

Futsal at The Cage on Jalan Benaan Kapal.

The west section of Jalan Benaan Kapal end abruptly where it once led to the junction with Stadium Road.

A former workshop where a different kind of weights would have been lifted by A-Frames and chain blocks ... now used by the Singapore Weightlifting Federation.

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My first taste of what life was in a shipyard – an eight week stint in 1982, part of a training programme I underwent, probably provided me with a first hand view of what the Geylang River and Kallang Basin was like back then, one that I would not otherwise have had.

The shipyard I was attached to was located at Jalan Benaan Kapal, close to the area where the Kallang Indoor Stadium is today. The road’s name being derived from the activities that went on along the road, from the Malay words for building or construction, Binaan and ship, Kapal. Looking at Jalan Banaan Kapal today, it is hard to imagine that it was once had been alive, with a thriving cluster of family owned shipbuilding and shiprepair businesses, in what was Singapore’s first marine industrial estate. This had been set up based on the recommendation of a UN Industrial Survey Mission to help in developing Singapore’s industrialisation potential following its independence, in what was a swamp area close to where the Geylang River empties into the Kallang Basin.

What we see today as empty land and condominiums at the area on either side of the river, Jalan Benaan Kapal on the Kallang side and Kampong Arang Road on the Tanjong Rhu side, were muddy banks laid with slipways, on which boats and small ships such as tugs could be up-slipped and repaired.

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Forgotten with time: Chong Pang Village

17 01 2010

With the help of an old map, and some sketchy memories of the village at which we would stop over at to get our supplies for the fishing and crabbing trips we used to make to the jetty at Sembawang end, as well as some old photos of the area courtesy of Mr Derek Tait, author of “Memories of Singapore and Malaya” who spent some of his childhood years in Singapore in the 1960s, and some from the National Archives, I was able to get a better impression of what Chong Pang was like in the 1970 and early 1980s. Taking a walk around the area, I could perhaps retrace some of the steps I had taken down the streets of Chong Pang, as I must have done in the early 1980s with Paul, an apprentice with Sembawang Shipyard, whom I had befriended during a six month stint I had with Sembawang Shipyard. Paul had come over from Kulai in Southern Johor, as many of the shipyard workers once did, and rented a windowless room in a wooden shack, which he once showed me. The wooden shacks of Chong Pang, as well as of Canberra Road, housed the thousands of Malayalees and Malaysians who worked at the shipyard. In the mornings and evenings, Canberra Road would be filled with streams of these shipyard workers dressed in the light blue coveralls of the shipyard, cycling to and from the shipyard.

Chong Pang Village erased: An open field slated for the development of a sports complex where the once bustling village used to stand, while a new public housing estate Sembawang rises in the background.

Today, the area where Chong Pang once stood bears very little evidence of the bustling village that once occupied the area. Most of the roads associated with the village have disappeared: the main part of the village centered around Chong Pang Road and the roundabout where the Sultan Theatre stood and around which some sumptuous hawker fare could be found in the evenings, is now a clear plot of land, that is, based on plans for the area, to be used for the construction of a sports and recreation complex. The roads on the other side of the road, where I remember there was a market of sorts, have similarly disappeared, a “Land for Sale” sign sticking out prominently where wooden shop houses once stood.

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978

Chong Pang Village as it used to be: Looking up Chong Pang Road towards the area where the roundabout with the Sultan Theatre was located.(Source: National Archives of Singapore).

The spot where the junction of Chong Pang Road with Sembawang Road once was, as it is  today.

A view of the junction of Chong Pang Road with Sembawang Road in 1968 taken northwards towards Canberra Road (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait)

A view of the junction of Chong Pang Road with Sembawang Road southwards. (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

There is maybe some evidence of Kedondong Road – what appears to be remnants of a paved road peeps out from the grass where the road once joined Sembawang Road. Further north, what used to be a fork in the road, the right branch being the continuation of Sembawang Road, the left, Canberra Road – which led to the Naval Base and was later the road leading to the shipyard which inherited the former naval dockyard after the pullout of the British forces. The gate that stood on Canberra Road still stood for sometime after as evidence of the former Naval Base. Canberra Road has since been widened, bearing little resemblance to the Canberra Road of old. A Catholic church, Our Lady Star of the Sea, which has since relocated to the Yishun, used to stand at the corner, near the start of Canberra Road.

Evidence of where a village road once stood: What’s left of Kedondong Road?

Village Scene in 1985 (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Village Scene in 1985 (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Row of Shops (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Wooden Shacks that housed the many shipyard workers who lived in the area (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea – a photo taken in 1992 (Source: http://www.veritas.org.sg/olss/history1.html)

Where the Star of the Sea once rose: the site of the old Catholic Church, Our Lady Star of the Sea

The Junction of Sembawang Road, Sembawang Avenue (new) and Canberra Road today, looking at Canberra Road. A hawker centre built in the 1970s used to stand in the area on the right of the bus. Canberra Gate used to stand a little further up Canberra Road.

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

Where the market area once was … now a plot of land for sale

Jalan Sendudok, one of the few roads still left

Area around the market along Sembawang Road.

Area around the market along Sembawang Road (posted in the Old Sembawang Naval Base Nostalgic Lane Facebook group).

The only part of the area that is maybe still recognisable is just south of where the village was: the Jalan Tampang and Jalan Legundi area, where the rows of shop houses still stand. The row along Jalan Legundi used to house the Cola Restaurant, a popular place for steaks, which later became Jack’s Cola Restaurant.

View of the row of shophouses along Jalan Legundi, from Jalan Tampang in 1968 (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait). The Cola Restaurant in the corner later became the Jack’s Cola Restaurant. At the other end of this row is the coffee shop which serves the popular Chye Lye Fish Head Curry. What stands on the field now is the hawker centre which once was the Yishun Village Seafood Restaurant.

A more recent landmark in the area, what used to be a rather run down looking Sembawang Shopping Centre, on the opposite side of Sembawang Road from JalanLegundi, was put up in the mid 1980s and was a popular destination for shoppers looking a bargain on music CDs. The shopping centre has since been rebuilt, and the chain that was build on the back of the sales of music CDs has closed, a victim of online music downloads. North of the area, a new public housing estate, Sembawang stands where the swamps around the Sungei Sembawang once stood. There is an area which is named Chong Pang in Singapore, left perhaps as a reminder of the old village, some 3 miles south of the village, bustling it is with a market popular with people living in the area, but nothing like how the old village was.

Map of the Chong Pang Village area, 1968 (extract of a 1968 HM Naval Base Map).More:

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