A walk down Neil Road

30 10 2012

Tucked away in a rather quiet but no less interesting corner of a district of Singapore that has come to be called Chinatown is an area which is often overlooked. The area, in Chinatown’s south-western corner incorporates the Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area, part of the Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area and boasts several architectural gems, which have unfortunately been cast in the shadow of a towering 50 storey public housing development, The Pinnacle@Duxton at nearby Duxton Plain.

Several conservation gems can be found along Neil Road, including what would have been the houses of the very wealthy (judging from the enclosed front yards these units at No. 56 – 60) were provided with.

Units 56 – 60 Neil Road seen in 1983 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The area is certainly one that is worth exploring, not just for the notable clan associations and clubs – one is the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many luminaries including the illustrious Tan Kah Kee, set amongst the many rows of beautifully conserved shophouses. Running partly along the area’s southern boundary is Neil Road which can perhaps be said to lie at the heart of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) conservation efforts – the pilot shophouse conservation project undertaken by the URA stands at No. 9 Neil Road.

The Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area boasts many architectural conservation gems and is also one that has been cast in the shadow of a towering public housing development at nearby Duxton Plain.

The Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many of Singapore’s luminaries.

Neil Road starts off where South Bridge Road ends at its junction with Maxwell and Tanjong Pagar Roads, rising up towards the Bukit Pasoh area. It is at this point that a gorgeous and very recognisable piece of architecture, the Jinrikisha Station, greets one’s eye. Built in 1903 in the Edwardian style on a triangular plan with a fairfaced brickwork exterior, the building is one that certainly needs no introduction and is now owned by Hong Kong Jackie Chan. It is just up the road from the Jinrikisha Station that No. 9, which now serves as a home to a Chinese tea shop Tea Chapter, lies.

The Jinrikisha Station at the start of Neil Road – built as a registration centre for rickshaws is now owned by Jackie Chan.

The conservation of No. 9 Neil Road was undertaken as part of a pilot URA shophouse restoration project that took place from 1987 to 1988 that involved a total of 32 shophouses built at the end of the 19th century, with No. 9 selected as a demonstration unit. The restored unit at No. 9 was where HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had tea at during a visit in 1989. The successful conservation project involving the 32 houses was the first phase of a larger effort to conserve a total of 220 government owned shophouses in the Tanjong Pagar area and intended to demonstrate the technical and commercial viability of shophouse conservation. The effort was one that was welcomed by conservationists as it had come at a time when large parts of the city had already been cleared of the pre-war shophouses which once dominated the cityscape.

No. 9 Neil Road – the very first conservation shophouse.

The 220 shophouses are on a 4.1 hectare site that was acquired from 1981 to 1984 by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The units had contained a mix of businesses and residents including many traditional businesses – one was Chan Pui Kee, an antique dealer and antique furniture restorer which had operated at No. 7 since 1913 (and has since moved to a restored shophouse at Lorong 24A Geylang). The residents of the houses had lived mainly on the upper floors, some at the point of acquisition, having lived there for much of their lives. Many were trishaw riders, craftsmen, and even prostitutes who worked in the area, living in very crowded spaces, renting rooms or cubicles for as little as $4 a month. The acquired houses, many of which had once been in the hands of Arab property owners, were to be demolished to make way for public housing, but a shift in thinking of our urban planners on high density public housing in the city centre saved them from that fate.

Conserved three storey shophouses along Neil Road.

Walking up the incline of the road, there are further examples of the conservation efforts that eventually was to involve a greater part of Chinatown, including several voluntary conservation initiatives. One such initiative is the conservation of the former Eng Aun Tong factory building at 89 Neil Road. As many familiar with the area would be aware of, Eng Aun Tong was a name used by the Haw Par brothers and the factory was where the most famous of their products, Tiger Balm, was once made. Based on information on the URA conservation of built heritage site, the building was built in 1924 in the Neoclassical Style. The starting up of the factory coincided with the Aw family’s move to Singapore from Rangoon (Yangon) in the 1920s. The factory operated until 1971 when production operations were contracted out and production of the famous ointment was moved to the Jack Chia group’s factories in Jurong.

The conserved former Eng Aun Tong factory building – where Tiger Balm had once been made.

The Eng Aun Tong factory building as seen depicted in a 1920s advertisement for Tiger Balm (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Walking past the former Eng Aun Tong factory, one will notice the blue balustrades of a concrete bridge. The bridge is one that passes over what is technically the first rail corridor conservation project. The corridor – now a linear park named Duxton Plain Park was where an extension to the original rail line (pre-1932 Deviation) had been constructed in 1907 to connect the terminal at Tank Road to connect with the waterfront, extending to Pasir Panjang. Operations on the extension were short-lived and the line was dismantled in between 1912 to 1914. A stretch from Yan Kit Road to New Bridge Road was retained as a public park. The park is one that is associated with one of the clubs in the area, a martial arts association – the Chin Woo Athletic Association (精武體育會or 精武体育会), as is evident from a steel sign erected on one of the bridge’s balustrades which reads “精武體育會操場” – the park had long served as a training ground for the association which has had a presence in the area since its formation here in 1922. It has been reported that our first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had often watched the association practice lion and dragon dances at the park in his younger days (he had lived as a boy in his paternal grandfather’s residence at nearby 147 Neil Road).

The bridge over the first rail corridor conservation project – now Duxton Plain Park. A sign tells us that it had served as a training ground for the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Living at nearby 147 Neil Road, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had as a young boy often caught many of the associations lion and dragon dance practice sessions at the park.

From this point, Neil Road soon crosses Cantonment Road and takes one west out of the Chinatown district towards another quiet and delightful conservation area, the Blair Plain Conservation Area. Crossing Cantonment Road, I am reminded of the many horror stories I have heard in my younger days that was associated with balancing the clutch on the slope at the junction during driving tests. Those were days when tests were conducted out of the former Maxwell Road driving test centre when the Traffic Police had its headquarters at the building which is today the Red Dot Design Museum. These days, it is across Cantonment Road that we notice a huge police presence – that of a towering new law enforcement complex named the Police Cantonment Complex.

A look into the compound of a conserved row of three shophouses at 56 – 60 Neil Road.

It might be a little hard to notice a little Victorian building that stands beneath the towering complex along Neil Road – especially now with its covered up for restoration work. The very pretty building, despite being very compact, once housed a school, and was where the Fairfield Girls’ School (which later became Fairfield Methodist School and is now Fairfield Methodist School) had operated at from 1912 to 1983. The building, built with the donation of a Mr Fairfield (hence the name of the school) is now part of the Police complex, although intended originally as a childcare centre for staff at the Police complex, the building will now house a Police recruitment centre.

The former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School (photo on the URA website).

It is beyond the former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School on the opposite side of the road that we come to the cluster of terrace houses which contains the unit that Mr Lee had spent some of his boyhood years at. Just down from that unit at No. 147, is No. 157 which is probably the jewel in the crown of the conservation efforts along Neil Road. That painted blue in an attempt to restore it to its original colour isn’t only a house which has seen it exterior restored but also one which has had much its fittings and furniture retained and restored and is possibly the best example of a Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese house from the turn of the 20th Century that exists today. The house, thought to have been built in the 1890s, had once belonged to shipping magnate Wee Bin and his descendants, has its interior retained through the conservation efforts of the National University of Singapore (NUS) (which owns the house having purchased it for the historical value of it and its contents) and the URA. Among the wonderfully preserved fittings is a very ornate carved wooden screen which separates the main hall from the interior of the house. The Baba House as it is called now, has some of its original furniture and flooring is well worth a visit. Visits are strictly by appointment only and advance arrangements for heritage tours are required. More information can be found at the NUS website. Do note that photography is not permitted inside the Baba House.

Baba House at 157 Neil Road – now owned by NUS and managed by NUS Museum was beautifully restored from 2006 to 2008.

Units 157 Neil Road (Baba House) seen in 1982 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).


The walk along Neil Road was part of a guided walk “Neil Road/NUS Baba House Walking Tour“, one in a series of tours conducted by the URA in conjunction with the URA Architectural Heritage Awards 2012. While registration for two of the remaining tours are closed, there is an ongoing exhibition at the URA Centre Atrium until 10 November 2012 which showcases the five award winners. The exhibition is open Mondays to Fridays from 8.30am to 7pm and on Saturdays from 8.30am to 5pm. It is closed on Sundays and Public Holidays.






First Journeys, Last Goodbyes at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

5 09 2012

For anyone interested in visiting Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, you will be glad to know that it will be opened for a motoring heritage exhibition this weekend (8 / 9 September 2012). Beside the vintage car display that will be put up by the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register (MSVCR), there will also be a chance to take rides on vintage mini-buses and scooters as well as revisit one of the main reasons why many visited the station before its closure – food. As part of the event, there will be an exhibition along the wider theme of transportation heritage for which the National Heritage Board (NHB) which has organised this event has invited me to help put together an exhibition of photographs from the community on the railway and the station. For this, I have got a group of various people that have an interest in the railway and the station to reflect on the journeys made and the last goodbyes that were said in a small exhibition ‘First Journeys, Last Goodbyes’. The exhibition will be opened from 10 am to 5 pm on both days and there will be free shuttle buses at half hour intervals from Tanjong Pagar MRT Station through the day. For those interested in learning more about the station’s history and architecture, guided tours of the station will also be conducted on both days.

A last goodbye on 30 June 2011.


About First Journeys, Last Goodbyes

For close to five decades after Singapore’s independence, the Malaysian railway continued to operate through Singapore on a piece of Malaysia that cut a path into the heart of Singapore. It was perhaps one of the last physical reminders of the common history that the two countries shared.

The southern terminal at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station completed in 1932, was modelled after Helsinki’s Central Station to give it a grand appearance for its intended role. That role, the grand southern terminal of a pan-Asian railway and a gateway to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, was one it never got to play, serving instead as a focal point of any rail journey into or out of Singapore.

The station best remembered for the high vaulted ceiling with huge panels of batik styled mosaic murals of its main hall was one that saw many visitors over the years. That, the experience of the station, as well as the many personal journeys taken through the station would have left a deep impression.

First Journeys, Last Goodbyes brings a few travellers each with a personal story to share of their journeys, journeys on railway or through the station … journeys that will take a long time to be forgotten …

Contributors to the community photo exhibition are Zinkie Aw, Francis Siew, Loke Man Kai, Tan Geng Hui and myself.


Information received on 7 Sep 2012 on the weekend public tours of the station:

The tours will be conducted by PMB’s Volunteer Guides. No sign-ups are required for the tours. Public tours will be:
• Sat, 8 Sep: 2pm, 3pm and 4pm.
• Sun, 9 Sep: 2pm and 3pm






Tanjong Pagar: a promise that we now know would never be fulfilled

11 07 2012

Standing silently and somewhat forgotten is a building that, only a year ago, attracted many people’s attention in Singapore. This building, the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, a magnificent architectural achievement once described as having a “palatial appearance”, recently joined Singapore’s list of National Monuments. Completed in 1932, the station was built as a centrepiece to underline Singapore’s growing importance as an economic centre in the British Far East, serving as a gateway for the southernmost point in continental Asia to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Located opposite the docks at Tanjong Pagar, the station was one that had been well-considered. The then Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, in his address at the station’s opening on 2 May 1932, had made the observation that it was “a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic” and mentioned that it was “where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”. The promise was, however, not fulfilled – Sir Cecil could not have predicted that the railway’s importance as a means of transportation in the Malayan peninsula would diminish.

The station’s opening that day was marked by the 5.15 pm arrival, from Bukit Panjang Station, of its first train. This train carried several dignitaries, including the Governor, the Sultan of Perak and Mr J Strachan, the General Manager of the Federated Malay States Railway. Several months prior to the opening (on 2 January 1932), the station had already made its public debut – by playing host to a Manufacturers’ Exhibition – an indication perhaps of its eventual destiny.

The station’s façade with the four large triumphal figures.

My first encounters with the station took place at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. My parents often drove past, drawn by the hawker stalls which operated in the evenings in a car-park facing the station’s entrance. It was while sitting at the tables in the car-park that I would gaze across to the station’s façade and stare at the four large, triumphal figures that flanked the portico’s arches. The figures were the work of Angelo Vannetti of the Raoul Bigazzi Studios Florence and represented the pillars of the Malayan economy. These triumphal figures are evidence of the Art Deco style chosen by its architects, Swan and MacLaren. Thought to have been inspired by Helsinki’s Central Station, it is believed the station also shares some of Washington DC’s Union Station’s design features. In fact Tanjong Pagar Station’s architectural elements reveal both western and eastern influences; the green-tiled roof structures were inspired by the roofs of Chinese Temples.

The main hall of the station. Part of the vaulted ceiling and batik-style mosaic panels can be seen.

On the rare occasions when I found myself in the main hall, the high vaulted ceiling that rises some 22 metres above the ground caught my attention, as did the six sets of mosaic panels that resemble giant batik paintings. The mosaic panels, which contain a total of 9,000 tiles, looked very much like the batik prints hanging in my home. The panels depict scenes that represent the economies of the then Federated Malay States. At that time, the station had also housed a hotel on the upper floors, around the main hall. A huge sign in the north-east corner of the hall made sure this did not go unnoticed.

It was in the 1990s that I first took a train out of the station. Seemingly in defiance of its location, a huge blue “Welcome to Malaysia” sign stood above the station’s entrance. A Points of Agreement (POA) had been signed in 1990 between the Malaysian Government and their Singapore counterparts. This was to pave the way for the eventual moving of the station from Tanjong Pagar and would involve its handover along with the land the railway ran through (whose ownership was transferred to the railway administration through a 1918 ordinance – effectively making it part of Malaysia).

Two decades of protracted negotiations followed the 1990 POA before the differences in its interpretation resulted in a renegotiation of land swap arrangements between the two governments. The moving of the station from Tanjong Pagar and the handover of land was agreed on only in May 2010.

It was perhaps at the beginning of 2011 that interest in the station and in train journeys from Tanjong Pagar started to build. The realisation that the station was soon to close drew crowds not previously seen at the station. Many turned up for a final look, to make a last departure or to have a last meal at the station, joined by a frenzy of photographers and members of both the local and overseas media, who seemed intent on recording the station’s last days.

A few former food stall operators having a last breakfast on 30 June 2011.

The final day of operations at the station, 30 June 2011, came all too soon. It was an especially poignant day for the station’s railway staff and also for the food-stall operators – some were seen having a last breakfast in the almost empty room that only days before had been filled with food-stalls and tables filled with diners. Well before the first train was to depart, a crowd had already gathered in the main hall. Many had come to witness the final moments. Some had come to start a journey that would end with a final homecoming to the station on the very last train that evening.

The crowds grew as the day passed. As night fell, many more gathered to witness the historic departure of the last train out, to be driven by the Sultan of Johor. I had come on the very last in-bound train and was prepared for the reception at the station by the scenes I had seen along the way. Huge crowds had gathered at Bukit Timah Station and at each of the five level crossings, to bid goodbye. After the train finally pulled in following a long delay at Bukit Timah, I lingered a while before stepping out onto the platform. I turned back for a final glance at the platform, realising that would be the last of my many homecomings into Tanjong Pagar.

The crowd at Tanjong Pagar late on 30 June 2011 to witness the departure of the last train.

As I stepped through the barrier, a crowd of would-be passengers heading towards the same train that had pulled in (now the last train out) almost swept me along with them. I managed to squeeze my way out while a frenzy was developing in the public areas. Through the crowd I spotted the Sultan, dressed in a checked shirt and speaking to reporters with tears in his eyes. At the final hour a huge cheer could be heard as the train pulled out, driven by the Sultan. In a daze I stared after it as the train faded into the darkness. It was then that I heard the silence that was there despite the noise coming from the crowd. It was one that filled the air – a silence that after some 79 years would never again be broken by the once-familiar sounds, a silence that spoke of the promise that we now know would never be fulfilled.


This article was written to coincide with the first anniversary of the closure of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and has been published as “Tanjong Pagar Railway Station” in the July / August issue of Passage, a bi-monthly magazine produced by the Friends of the Museums (FOM).


Further information on Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and on the anniversary of the handover:

  • Photographs of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on the anniversary of its handover can be found at my post Tanjong Pagar One Year On.
  • A complete series of posts related to my encounters with Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, the railway and the journeys I have made through the station can be found at my “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar” page.
  • Article (in Chinese) that may be of interest published in the Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao on the 1st of July in which some my views connected with the Rail Corridor were sought can be found at this link.




Faces from a forgotten place

3 07 2012

This post features a selection of photographs intended to capture part of what had made the much loved Tanjong Pagar Railway Station what it was just prior to its closure, one to celebrate the many faces that provided the station with its heart and soul. The faces are ones that would be familiar, and are not just of the people who were part of the fabric the station, but also of the many that came and went and of the sights and sounds that gave the station its unique flavour, a flavour that, despite the conservation of the building as a National Monument, will fade as memories fade. The photographs are the same ones which were presented during a sharing session at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station open house held on the afternoon of 1st July 2012 – the first anniversary of the handover of the station and the railway land to the Singapore government. The open house was held as part of the Rail Corridor Open Day and also included guided walks around Bukit Timah Railway Station.

While the building, now gazetted as a National Monument still stands, it is the memory of what had made the station what it was – the familiar sights, the people that came and went, and most of all the people who were very much a part of the fabric of the station that will with time fade.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as it was is a place that always will be dear to me. I have many fond memories of the station from my previous encounters, encounters that go back to the earliest days of my life. Then, it was the food stalls that magically appeared in the evenings at a car park the lights of which dimly illuminate the station’s grand façade and its four triumphal figures. That was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was after the latter half of the 1970s that the station would become a feature in my Chinese New Year reunion dinners – my aunt who hosted the dinners moved to a flat in Spottiswoode Park just by the station and reunion dinners would not be the same without the accompaniment of the sounds of whistles and of the noisy diesel locomotives from the station. The 1990s brought me my many encounters with the station through which I made numerous trips up to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and back – journeys that would forever be etched in my memory. These encounters with the station, and the memorable journeys I made through it, I have attempted to capture through a series of blog posts which many of you might have already read. However if they are of interest, the posts can be found through the page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Once familiar sights

A car belonging to the Malayan Railway, KTM, parked in front of the building.

The main hall as it looked at eye level in its latter days – a Tourism Malaysia hut was placed right in the middle of the hall.

The ticket counter in quieter days – well before the madness of the last two months descended on the station.

Waiting to buy a ticket often required some patience.

Especially when the ticketing system is down – that in my experience often happened.

Another sign one might encounter ….

We were always reminded that we had to pay not the equivalent in the local currency for the price of a ticket but one unit of the local currency for every unit of the weaker Ringgit.

And when you did finally get your hands on the ticket, you could find a seat in the main hall to pass your time away …

… which provides many opportunities for people watching …

… or as I often do, have a cup of teh tarik at the platform – a popular spot for watching the coming and going of not just the trains and the locomotives.

Access to the departure platform was through a gate that would only be opened about half an hour prior to the scheduled departure of the trains to facilitate immigration clearance. On the commuter services on which seating is not assigned, passengers would often crowd at the gate prior to departure, ready to make a dash first for the Immigration counters. After clearing Immigration and Customs, the same thing would happen at a barrier which when opened will see a mad rush of passengers to the train carriages.

Tickets would be checked and punched at the departure gate.

From which one would proceed to the immigration counters.

With the shift of Singapore’s CIQ to Woodlands in mid 1998 and the Malaysian authorities maintaining their Immigration and Customs counters at the station, passengers would effectively enter Malaysia before leaving Singapore.

Passengers boarding the last luxury E&O train to depart from Tanjong Pagar posing next to Malaysian Immigration booths.

The last E&O train to depart at the platform.

Returning home, one of the first things that would greet you (post mid 1998) as you walked to the end of the platform was the barrier before you got into the public area. Prior to the move of the SIngapore CIQ, you would first have to pass through Singapore Immigration, Customs and a narrow passage through a fenced area where K9 unit dogs would sniff passengers for smuggled narcotics.

The next thing one would encounter would be the canteen / coffee shop at which one could stop to have a meal or a drink prior to leaving. I often picked up my breakfast from the canteen after coming in on the overnight train from KL.

The canteen would also be a great place to wait for returning members of the family and friends.

It was also a wonderful place to catch up with friends over a cup of tea ….

.. or to have dinner with the family.

It would be common to see passengers with large pieces of luggage leaving the station.

The station had a hotel which closed in the 1980s. Towards the end of its life, it hosted a hostel with dormitory type double bunk bed accommodation which offered a cheap place to spend the night or even take a short rest – this closed in late 2010.

Trying to get a taxi home was always a challenge as many taxi drivers did not like to wait at the station as trains arrival times were unpredictable.

Once familiar faces

One of the first faces one would encounter driving to the station’s car park.

And if one needed to use the rest room.

One that you might have seen at the Habib Railway Book Store and Money Changer, Mr Syed Ahmad.

Mr Syed’s nephew – ‘Nazir’ would probably have been seen more frequently.

The hardworking last Station Master at Tanjong Pagar – En. Ayub.

A very helpful ticketing clerk, En. Azmi, who was posted to the station on 1st July 1990. He completed a full 21 years at the station when it ceased operations on 30th June 2011.

A few more of the familiar faces (and less familiar ones) …

Mr Mahmoodul Hasan who ran the two canteens in the station before its closure.

Some of those who assisted him at the drinks counter and the popular Ramly Burger stand.

One of the ladies from the food stall at the corner of M Hasan 2.

One of the stall assistants at the platform.

The chapati man at M Hasan 2.

One who is always ready with a smile – the Satay stall’s assistant at M Hasan 2.

And last of all one that should not be forgotten – one of the many cats the station was home to.





Tanjong Pagar one year on

2 07 2012

I stepped into the eerie silence of a world that a little over a year ago, had been one that had seen the frenzy that accompanied the last moments of the old Malayan Railway’s operations through Singapore. The now silent world, Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, is now but an empty shell, abandoned by the trains that regularly punctured the air with the deafening roar of their diesel locomotives as well as by the people who made the station what it was – the hardworking staff of the railway, those who saw to providing it with essential services, and those who came and went with the comings and goings of the trains.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station 1 year on.

The station was able to momentarily break out of its solitude due to a kind offer by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to the Nature Society Singapore (NSS) and the Friends of the Rail Corridor to open up both Tanjong Pagar Railway Station to the public on the first anniversary of the handover of the station and the Rail Corridor to the Government of Singapore. As a result of this, a Rail Corridor Open Day was very quickly put together. This included a guided walk in the morning held at Bukit Timah Station which was followed by an open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in the afternoon. The handful of people that did turn up at Tanjong Pagar, probably numbering about a hundred during the course of the afternoon comprising rail enthusiasts, familiar faces that I met during last year’s frenzy, the curious and some who hail from distant shores, got an opportunity to participate in a guided tour conducted by Dr Lai Chee Kien and learn more about the station and its and the railway’s history.

The main hall during the guided tour – now clear of the Tourism Malaysia hut that had got in the way of achieving a nice perspective in photographs that were taken before the handover.

The open house also allowed some to share some of what they have put together on the station. This included a poignant and very interesting documentary made in 2008, Project 1932, by Zinkie Aw that touches on some of the people who were part of the station’s history. I also had to opportunity to share a series of photographs that I had captured to help me reconnect with the station as it once had been. The series which I named ‘Faces from a forgotten place’ includes once common scenes and once familiar faces, ones that we see now only in the memories we have of a little over a year ago. It is these very memories that I tried to find as I took the opportunity that was presented to explore what I could of the silence. In its emptiness and abandonment, it was not the memories that I was able to find, but ironically, the beauty of the station that I would otherwise not have known – spaces previously occupied and closed to us that even in the state of the two decades of neglect during which time its status had been in limbo is still obvious.

The station in its solitude was able to reveal some of its otherwise hidden beauty.

This beauty that we can still see takes us back to a time when the world had been a different place, to a time when it was thought the station would take its place as the grand southern terminal of the Malayan Railway and the gateway to the Pacific and Indian oceans – a promise that a little over 79 years after it was opened has proven to be one that was never to be fulfilled. What will become of the former station we do not know, its possible second life will be explored in a Design Competition that aims to develop concepts for the future use of the station which has been gazetted as a National Monument, Bukit Timah Railway Station (which has conservation status), and the 26 kilometres of the former Rail Corridor. What I do hope to see would be a use that will not just preserve the memory of the role it was meant to assume and the memories we have of the railway, but also one that with minimum intervention will see it retain not just the beauty that we have seen but also the beauty that has until now been one that has been hidden.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in its solitude

The emptiness that now fills the station offers another perspective of its beauty.

Once hidden spaces that in the station’s abandonment can now be seen, reveal a side of the station that has until now has not been seen by many.

A view out of the window at the white iron fence that lines the station’s boundary with Keppel Road.

The writing on the wall … a memory in an otherwise hidden space of what the station once was …

Recent writings on the wall … collection of wishes for the station written by visitors to the open house.

View through what was a freight forwarder’s office.

A storage area that was used by the canteen operator.

Windows to a forgotten world.

The silence of a once busy space.

More silence ….

Signs of a forgotten time.

The silence of departure (photo taken with Sony Xperia S).

Last act of the day – security personnel trying to close a platform gate that just refused to be closed …


Do visit my series of posts on my previous encounters with the station, the railway and the journeys I have made through the station which can be found at the “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar” page on this site.


An article of that may be of interest in the Chinese newspaper Zaobao published on the 1st of July in which some my views on the preservation of memories connected with the Rail Corridor were sought: http://www.zaobao.com.sg/sp/sp120701_020_2.shtml … I’ll try to get that translated and posted here for the benefit of those that don’t read Chinese.






Fading memories

5 06 2012

A year ago, Singapore was seeing the last days of the old Malayan Railway. The railway had served Singapore over a century, cutting a path through the island first with a line partly running on what is Dunearn Road today over to Tank Road. With the deviation of 1932, the line was set on its last path, turning at Bukit Timah to the docks at Tanjong Pagar. The line fell silent on the 1st of July and with that, all that was left were the physical reminders of the old railway and the collective memories we have of it.

The silence of the morning after a little over 79 years of operations at Bukit Timah Railway Station.

One year on, many of the physical reminders are no longer with us – most of the tracks and sleepers have since been removed and returned to Malaysia. The two station buildings have received conservation status – Tanjong Pagar Railway Station has been gazetted as National Monument and Bukit Timah Railway Station a conserved building. We do know that three other recognisable structures – the two truss bridges that define the Bukit Timah area and a girder bridge that many see as a gateway to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, will remain. There are several other smaller structures that we do see including the surviving signal huts at the various level crossings (the bright yellow one at Kranji Road fell victim to urgent road widening works soon after the 1st of July). It is unfortunate that several structures that still stand, were ones that have not been very well maintained when they were in use. As a result, most of the wooden structures are termite infested and are in rather poor shape. It does look as if, based on the signs that have been placed around the structures, that they may go the way of (if they haven’t already) the other physical reminders that since been removed.

The signal hut at the former Kranji Level Crossing was one of the first to go.

One which sees a “building unsafe” sign is the former Mandai (Stagmont Ring Road) Crossing’s signal hut. This would really be a shame – the hut bears an impromptu memorial on its door neatly scribbled in permanent market pen. Written on the door are the names of the last gatemen, presumably by one of them: Mr P Mohan A/L Ponniah, Mr Hamid B. Hashim and Rodwwan B. Mohd. Salleh. Below the names is a record of the passing of the last train at 2330 hours on the 30th of June noting that the train was driven by the Sultan of Johor as well as the years of the crossing’s operation (1932 – 2011).

The former signal hut of the Mandai Gate Crossing that is structurally unsound.

The memorial to the last gatemen and the last train.

With the removal of this signal hut, little will be left to physically remind me of this level crossing – just those few photographs, and the records and the memories that I have. And of all that I will miss of the old railway, it is the sight of the level crossings that I will most miss – seeing a train cross the road does serve as the earliest memory I have of the railway. As memories fade with the passing of time, it is this memory of the railway that I hope that I will hang on the longest to.

With the tracks and sleepers now removed, there is very little physically left to remind us of the railway.

The outhouse at the Mandai Crossing will also have to go.





The mosque at the 778.25 km marker

16 05 2012

It was a year ago that interest in the former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line that ran through Singapore started to peak as the realisation hit many in Singapore that the last days of the railway line were upon us. Many embarked on their own journeys through Tanjong Pagar Station to have the experience of the railway and a journey through the grand old station. There were many who also explored the land on which the railway ran on foot – catching glimpses and taking snapshots to remember a world that was about to change forever. Whether it is from the vantage of the rail carriage or from the ground, there is no doubt many would have realised that a world far apart from the one we lived in existed along the corridor along which the railway ran through, one that in many ways took one, without leaving Singapore’s borders, far away from Singapore.

Masjid Hang Jebat as seen from a passing train. Many otherwise hidden parts of Singapore, some which takes us far away from the Singapore we now know, could be seen from the trains that used to run through Singapore.

One of the places along the corridor that would certainly have been noticed is a cluster of zinc roofed buildings close to where the 778.25 km distance marker was, a place if one was on the northbound train one would pass about 7 minutes out of the station just around the bend after passing under the Gillman Flyover and Alexandra Hospital. The cluster of buildings belongs to the Masjid Hang Jebat, a mosque that lies not on railway land but on a part of Singapore, Wessex Estate, that once was home to British army personnel. It is to Wessex Estate that the mosque owes its establishment; but that it exists to this day is probably a result of the railway that ran beside it – protecting the area from being developed all these years. The name of the surau and later the mosque, comes from Jalan Hang Jebat in Wessex Estate, at the end of which the mosque stands.

The mosque as seen in July 2011, just after the cessation of KTM railway services to Tanjong Pagar.

The 778.25 km marker that once stood close to the mosque.

The setting for the mosque certainly takes one far from the Singapore we have come to know. Set amid the wonderful greenery that the area is blessed with, the coconut palms that tower over the mosque and the cluster of banana trees reminds us of an old Singapore we have quickly sought to forget. On one of my recent visits to the area, a man emerges from the cluster of buildings now decorated with green floral motifs and greets me. He is Jimmy – the man who apparently is behind what now decorates the buildings. Jimmy tells me that the motifs are fairly recent addition, painted on to coincide with the Prophet’s birthday. “The decoration changes every year,” Jimmy says, going on to explain that he was the artist behind the decorations.

The rural setting in which the Masjid Hang Jebat is in.

All evidence of the railway has since been removed.

As I step through what looks like a little canteen that is reminiscent of the ones we find in the villages across the Causeway, Jimmy relates how he has been connected to the mosque since he was a young boy. He then lived in a block of flats in Queens Crescent which has since been demolished and has come to the mosque ever since. Saturdays he says are especially busy days at the mosque and like he did in his younger days, many come for religious instruction (including intending converts to the religion) and to play Sepak Takraw in the yard.

The recently decorated hall.

The artist, Jimmy, posing for a photograph.

It was in fact in serving the residents of the area, Queens Crescent being one, as well as nearby residential clusters in the early days of Queenstown that included Queens Close, Stirling Road and Tanglin Halt, that was instrumental in seeing what was started as surau, a prayer room, expand into the mosque it is today. The surau was built in the early 1960s exclusively for use by Muslim serving in the British forces based in Wessex Estate, in what was an area that was fenced-up (although many in the area managed to find a way in). With the British withdrawal in 1971, the surau and the land on which it sits on were opened up and donations were collected to expand the prayer room into a mosque to accommodate the growing population in the area.

Warong Hang Jebat … a stall set in the mosque’s canteen that is reminiscent of village stalls across the Causeway.

Today, the mosque sits in relative silence, no longer serenaded by the sounds of the railway, evidence of has been removed. It is a refreshing escape from the noise and haste of the new world that Singapore is, but for how long, we don’t know. Behind the mosque, a clump of banana trees reminds me of a world we have long since abandoned. I observe a few kampung chickens coming down from a wooden coop running freely around the grassy area by the banana trees. The chickens, I am told, had until recently been wild – having emerged from the surrounding vegetation after the railway stopped running. That perhaps is a sign that the wild world that was once part of the railway land will inevitably be tamed … My hope is that tamed it is not and the wonderful parts of that world which still are there such as this mosque, will still be there to remind us of that gentler world from which the cold grey one we now live in once came from.

A clump of banana trees reminds me of a gentler world we have long abandoned.

Behind the mosque … a chicken coop holds village chickens that until recently, had run wild.

A view of the mosque from a path that leads to Wessex Estate.

Kampung Chickens.






A gradual reopening of the Rail Corridor

2 09 2011

Members of the media and the Rail Corridor working group were provided with an update on the track removal works and plans to reopen parts of the Rail Corridor as work is being completed early this morning during a walkabout in the vicinity of Bukit Timah Railway Station with Minister of Law, Mr. K Shanmungam, the Minister of State (National Development) BG Tan Chuan-Jin, the Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Education & Ministry of Law, Ms Sim Ann, and officers from the SLA, MND, URA and Nparks.

Minister of Law, Mr Shanmugam briefed members of the media and the Rail Corridor Consultation Group on the progress of SLA's track removal work and the reopening of the Rail Corridor for use by the community.

Mr Shanmugam being briefed by a SLA officer near the truss bridge.

The Minister also responded to concerns raised by members of the public about damage to existing vegetation during track removal works in the vicinity of the station and explained that the SLA had been “aware of the need to preserve vegetation and no trees were removed”. He also stated that turfing works over the area of the removed tracks, which is now quite evident, was necessary to ensure that there was little risk of water ponding. The tracks, all ancilliary structures such as signal posts, kilometre markers and the ballast are being removed and returned as part of the agreement with Malaysia, with the exception of a stretches in way of the platforms of the two conserved stations and the three bridges that will be retained.

Turfing work south of Bukit Timah Railway Station.

A section of the tracks in way of the Bukit Timah Railway Station platform is being retained.

Another view of Bukit Timah Railway Station. Besides the tracks, one sign and several other structures are being kept.

A map at the station showing SLA's removal plans which identify the bridges that will be retained.

The truss bridge at Bukit Timah / Dunearn Roads with trufing work and the portion of tracks to be retained very much in evidence.

The SLA also announced the reopening of a 1.4 kilometre stretch of the Rail Corridor where track removal and turfing work is being completed from the 16th of September. The stretch is from the steel truss bridge over Bukit Timah / Dunearn Road southwards. This will allow members of the public to enjoy walks along the stretch. Work to remove the tracks is scheduled to be completed by 31st December this year and portions of the former railway land will be progressively opened to the public as the removal works are being completed.

Rather than the green SLA signs we are used to, signs welcoming the public are being put up along the stretches of the Rail Corridor that are bing reopened.

The portion of the track being retained at the truss bridge at Bukit Timah / Dunearn Roads. a 1.4 km stretch from the bridge southwards is being opened up to the public from 16th September.

Mr Shanmugam being interviewed by members of the media at Bukit Timah Railway Station.

Mr Shanmugam speaking to Mr Leong Kwok Peng of the Nature Society (Singapore).

The public will also have access to the former Bukit Timah Railway Station building. Members of the public are advised refrain from acts vandalism, which the bridges and the tracks have been subject to. The station as we see today, has been stripped of items belonging to the railway, including signalling equipment and signal levers (except for six that remain). The station sign on the north end has also been returned to Malaysia, with Singapore retaining the one on the south end. The longer term plans for Bukit Timah Railway Station will be part of the URA’s comprehensive review of development plans for the former railway land and their surrounding areas and as part of its review, the URA will study the possibility of marrying development and greenery, such as applying innovative strategies to maintain a continuous green link along the rail corridor without affecting the development potential of the lands.

The Station Master's room at Bukit Timah Station, stripped of the safe which sat on the yellow support structure next to the door.

Another view of the room where the key token signal equipment had once been placed.

All that are left are six signal levers.

Another view of the six signal levers.


Photographs proivided by SLA explaining the track removal process:






Segamat on a sleepy afternoon

20 08 2011

I always enjoy a walk around any old part of any town. They usually offer a window into a world that might have once existed, sometimes throwing a few surprises. Taking a quick walk around sleepy old Segamat on a Thursday afternoon took me into that world, a world that may have once existed in Singapore that is now lost to us. It is in walking into gateways into that lost world, where windows into the soul of the place can be peeked into, opening up passageways through the heart of the place, that one can reflect on the world that surrounds you. It was a world that I found myself immersed in in what little time I had, and one that made an impression on me.

Gateways

Windows

Passageways

Reflections

Signs of the times

Patterns





A storm in the southern seas

16 08 2011

A mini storm hit the otherwise sleepy southern seas on the last Thursday in June – a storm of train passengers intent on catching the last train back into Tanjong Pagar on the last day of the station’s operations on the 30th of June. It wasn’t of course the sea that the storm hit but the Nan Yang, which translates into the Southern Seas, in the sleepy town of Segamat in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. The Nan Yang is the name of a coffee shop that is perhaps one of the main tourist attractions in Segamat for the want of one in a place where a single tower block that dominates the town and which has since found use as a tower in which swiftlets are allowed to weave the much sought after nests with their saliva probably serves as a curiosity.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop in Segamat.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop is a favourite of the locals, who seek their once or even twice a day caffeine fix. The coffee shop offers more than the thick black liquid that the locals seem to rave about, and also serves as a place where one can get a quick breakfast or snack of toasted buns or slices of bread served with a generous helping of kaya (a sweetened spread made from coconut and egg and flavoured with pandan leaves and butter), and soft boiled eggs, typical of coffee shop breakfast fare in days when life was a lot simpler, and has now become big business so much so that chains of similar coffee shops are now thriving in the larger towns and cities in Malaysia and also in Singapore.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop can be found in the old part of town in the corner of a two storey pre-war shophouse along Jalan Awang.

The coffee shop is set in the corner of a row of pre-war shop houses in the old part of town on a street, Jalan Awang, that resembles that of many of the smaller towns in Malaysia and perhaps a Singapore we have left behind, just across from the Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah. Just a stone’s throw away from the Segamat Railway Station and Police Station, stepping into the Nan Yang takes you back immediately in time to a world that even with its somewhat sanitised appearance, is one that was typical of a world we in Singapore have forgotten. It is for this, if not the excellent cup of coffee the coffee shop serves, that made the Nan Yang, well worth the visit.

Supposedly the best cup of coffee in Segamat.

The storm in the southern seas.

Offerings that excited the hungry Singaporeans ...

Another view of the Coffee Shop.

An old safe.

Locals enjoying a cup of coffee.





The Green Corridor has the PM’s support!

15 08 2011

In his speech during the National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made what appears to be an endorsement of the efforts of the Ministry of National Development (MND) and the Urban redevelopment Authority (URA) in engaging various interest groups and the public on the use of the former KTM rail corridor, and also for the idea to develop a green corridor through the land. He cited this as an encouraging example in which Singaporeans are engaging the Government and “going beyond giving views … and coming forward to work with one other and with the government on projects which matter to them”. PM Lee also mentioned creating of “a green corridor along the railway land” citing “many views outside encouraging the government to make this a beautiful green corridor to add to the amenities of living in Singapore” and said that the MND and URA and he are all very keen on this and URA is carrying out an extensive public consultation to look for “creative ways of preserving green spaces without affecting development potential of the land”.

The Green Corridor has received the PM's support ... a butterfly seen at the Clementi Woodland area near Holland Road as track clearing work is being carried out.

PM Lee also mentioned that there were many bright ideas from students, architects, design professionals to use sections as creative arts and performing spaces and to develop a leisure corridor, linked to the park connector network and highlighted a proposal which he mentioned was “creative and imaginative” from a recent graduate of the NUS Architecture Department, Ms Regina Koo who suggested building a “Velo-Park” with bikeways, bike rental stalls, bike club and bike café “where one can have a bite on a bike”, saying that the Government would be looking forward to other good ideas saying “don’t just tell us what to do, but help us to do it”.

A proposal by Regina Koo, a recent Architecture graduate from NUS involves a Velo-Park (MND image via Channel NewsAsia).


Recent images around the Clementi Woodland / Holland Road area:

Tracks have been cleared and beyond the stretch where work first started to remove the tracks, clearance work seems more contained.

Another view of the area - much of the vegetation here is intact.

The scene closer to Bukit Timah Station from the south - turfing work over where the tracks lay is very much in evidence.






When time did stand still on June 30th

10 08 2011

The 30th of June 2011 was a day on which I was to have taken a final journey out of Tanjong Pagar and had a final homecoming into the station that was at midnight of the following day, cease to function as one. The day was one in which I was caught up in a frenzy of activity that started with me stepping through the grand arches of the station early in the morning and being almost immediately accosted by a media team from a local television channel, having been identified as the perpetrator of the so-called party on the last train into Tanjong Pagar. The journey up to Segamat was no less frenzied as I tried to first catch my last daytime glimpse of the rail corridor from the open door of the train carriage, and then on the way up catching up with friends and acquaintances that had come on the train.

A reflection of the Sin Tong Ah Hotel entrance off a mirror in the Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah along Jalan Awang in Segamat.

It was only at Segamat that peace finally reigned as the various groups decided to head out on their own. After a leisurely lunch in the cool comfort of a restaurant that was recommended by a local friend of one on the train, a coffee and toast at the must visit Kedai Kopi Nan Yang, there was time to wander around and make a few interesting discoveries. It was after all this that most of the group somehow congregated at another coffee shop just across from the Nan Yang to wile the rest of the afternoon away, and it was at that where I suddenly found myself immersed in a fascinating world where time seemed to stand still.

Time stands still over the marble tops of Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah in Segamat.

Sitting at the marble top table with its heavy wooden leg, reminiscent of the tables we were used to seeing in the kopi-tiam (coffee shop) of old, I was also for a while, transported back to days when I could sit and watch the world go by in that half an hour I had before school started some three decades ago. It has probably been as long ago as that since I last thought of passing time in a kopi-tiam as I did at one we referred to as “Smokey’s” along the row of shops of Victoria Building (since demolished) facing Victoria Street, that with a few friends, I would sit, surrounded by walls tiled to half their height. And just as it would have been then, I found my eyes trained on the preparation counter. And just as it might have been back then, half obscured steam which rose from a cauldron of boiling water beside the counter, I watched as the assistant at the counter fulfilled the orders of kopi (coffee), teh (tea), as well as that for toast and half-boiled eggs – a popular choice for breakfast at the kopi-tiam.

A half boiled egg ... a popular item for breakfast in the kopi-tiam of old.

Black sauce often accompanies the eggs.

Busy at the counter - a scene reminiscent of the kopi-tiam where I wasted half an hour away, five days a week.

Reflection off another mirror in the kopi-tiam.

Electrical fittings that take one back in time.

Melamine plates stacked at a stall in the kopi-tiam.

Empty bottles in a crate stacked over crates of unopened bottles of softdrink.

A schoolgril watches her father as he sip on his cup of tea.

Sitting at the table, it felt as time, for a while, seemed to stand very still, as the world within the kopi-tiam moved as if I was watching it pass by me in the slowest of motion. The hour that we were to spend there, did eventually pass, accompanied by the excitement of another group of passengers who had descended on the kopi-tiam to purchase some food for the journey home. It was then time to head back to the train station for that final journey, a journey that was to be the last back through the length (north to south) of Singapore and the last into a station that a little more than 79 years after the first train it saw pulled into one of its platform, was on that evening see a last slow and sad final homecoming.

The passage of time quickened at the end of the hour with many descending on the kopi-tiam to take food away for the return journey.





A fading memory

6 08 2011

Where once the roar of the diesel locomotives broke the silence of the wonderful world that 79 years of the railway passing through it had given, the area is today, as are the trains that passed through it, sadly only a distant memory, overrun by trucks, excavators and tonnes of earth. It was a world where butterflies and dragonflies coloured the green world with their dances of joy, where birds surprise the visitor with their flights of fancy, and where a world we never knew we had offered an escape from that grey urban world we live in. Looking at the photographs of a little more than a month ago, it is hard to imagine what has happened in the last month, with Singapore Land Authority (SLA) moving contractors into the area to remove the tracks, most of the 26 km stretch of which is to be returned to the Malaysians by the year’s end. Nature has a way of regenerating itself and once the work to remove the tracks is complete, I hope that the area is allowed to gain back its former glory and not turned into another manicured piece of greenery that Singapore has too much of.

A train passing through the pristine stretch of the rail corridor just south of Bukit Timah Railway Station. A world that is now lost and one sans the railway, that I hope to see again.





A final homecoming into Tanjong Pagar

4 08 2011

I was on that last train to pull into Tanjong Pagar, one that brought my fellow passengers and me on a final journey, a final homecoming to a station that would on the stroke of midnight the following day cease to be a station. It was a journey that I had been very deliberate on my part, one that I made to bid farewell to a railway and a station that through many journeys I have made, developed a fondness for.

The journey started rather unevenfully. Clarissa and Pooja looking out of the window half an hour out of Segamat.

The final journey was one of a hundred miles, one that started not so much with one step, but with one tweet that set off a wave of interest in the journey. It started in the sleepy town of Segamat, a hundred miles north of Singapore, where many of the passengers on the same journey had congregated at to board the 1759 Ekspres Sinaran Timur which was scheduled to pull into Tanjong Pagar at 2200 – the very last train to pull into Tanjong Pagar. I was surprised by the punctuality of the train when it arrived – something that my many journeys on the railway had not come to expect. That was a positive sign – as a delay of two hours (which wasn’t uncommon) would probably have meant we would not be pulling into Tanjong Pagar.

A NHK crew chats with crew on the last train into Tanjong Pagar.

The journey started quite uninterestingly, with only the news a fellow passenger received over the telephone that the 1300 northbound from Singapore was way behind schedule creating a buzz. This meant that the load it carried of other would be passengers on the train back in couldn’t get on at Segamat as they had planned to. It was at Kluang that they managed to get off the 1300 and join the train we were on and it was at this point when it got much more lively – party horns blaring and food and drinks being exchanged as passengers mingled around within the narrow confines of the passageway.

A view through the cabin.

It was at Kempas Bahru where I guess most of the excitement began. There was word that a cameraman from one of the media teams with us has fallen off the train (we found out that he managed to get back on and wasn’t hurt). Then a call from a Channel NewsAsia reporter and another from a producer from the same station that they had heard that the train was to terminate at JB Sentral resulted in some initial anxiety. The reporter Satish Chenny had intended to board at JB Sentral with a cameraman to cover the final leg through Singapore. I thought to myself, that what was said was probably just said to deter would be passengers crowding at JB Sentral from trying to board the train and mentioned this to Satish. True enough, Satish could be seen gratefully coming onboard after the immigration officers at JB had cleared the train.

20:57 A Malaysian Immigration officer under the glare of TV lights at JB Sentral.

That little bit of excitement did not really prepare me, and perhaps many of the others on board, for what was to follow, but no before the glare of the camera lights were shone right up my face as I tried to savour the final journey through Singapore as we cleared Singapore immigration and customs at Woodlands from the open door of the carriage. It was at Kranji level crossing that we got the first sign of what was to be amazing scenes along the way – crowds of people gathered at the crossings and at visible stretches of corridor along the way to cheer and send the last train off, as the train chugged on a last southbound journey through the darkness of the night lighted by the green stream of light of a laser shone by a fellow passenger with the sound of the chugging locomotive broken by the sounding of the horn by the train driver at short intervals.

21:09 Across the causeway onto Woodlands Checkpoint from where the final southbound journey through Singapore began.

As the train pulled into Bukit Timah Station at the midway point of the journey, a truly amazing scene greeted the passengers on that last train in – a large cheering mass of people had crowded on the platform at which the train came to a halt, making a short stop to await the passing of the last northbound passenger train. As I stood from the opened door scanning the scene before me in bewilderment, a voice called out to me. There right below where I was on the train as it came to a halt stood a dear friend whom I had met through chasing trains over the final months! We both stood there speechless for a moment and as the surprise of the coincidental encounter wore off, exchanged greetings.

21:52 Waiting at Bukit Timah Station

Many had got on and off as the train waited. Some shook hands with Encik Gani, the station master and others had their photographs taken onboard and on the platform. It was a party-like atmosphere all around us. Soon it was time to make the final fifteen minutes of the journey for the final homecoming, and as we pulled out into the darkness of the Clementi woodland for that final leg, I was struck by the realisation that this would be my last train journey through Singapore and the last one that I will make into that magnificent station that holds so many memories for me … Arriving at the platform, I made my way slowly down to the platform and passed under the clock which read 10:37. That was to be the last of many walks I had made coming off an arriving train, one that I did not for this last time hurry at doing. I was asked by a NHK television crew to say a few final words on the platform as my companions walked ahead of me. In spite of the crowd that had gathered around as I made my way out, it then felt that I was all alone, all alone to face the rush of emotion that accompanied the sadness of the final walk. I continued to make my way in a daze, passing the crowd that had gathered around the Sultan of Johor who stood with tears in his eyes as he spoke to reporters and the crowd. He was to drive the last train out. I paused only to take a quick photograph of the Sultan through the crowd and continued into the main hall. I took one last painful look around, that wasn’t how Tanjong Pagar Railway Station had ever seemed to me, but perhaps one that I would want to remember it as, a station that its final hours had finally got the attention it deserved. It was a day that was certainly one to remember. And although it is one that I will remember with a tinge of sadness, it will be one that comes with the fondness of memories that I have of the trains and of the magnificent station that were to be no more.

22:04 Passengers take the hand of Encik Gani.

22:14 The train leave Bukit Timah Station for the final run into Tanjong Pagar.

22:40 Looking down the platform a couple of minutes after arriving before I start my final walk down the platform.

22:42 A final look back ...

22:42 Walking past a stream of members of the staff and press who were making their way onto to the train for the last journey out.

22:43 The Sultan through the crowd.

10:45 The scene before the last train out of Tanjong Pagar departs.

22:46 Workers rush to remove the last bits of furniture from the already closed canteen.

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The mourning after the morning after

1 08 2011

A month after the cessation of the old Malayan Railway’s services through Singapore and into Tanjong Pagar, we are seeing, besides the removal of the tracks, a complete alteration in the physical landscape of one of the prettier parts of what the Nature Society hopes would be a Green Corridor through Singapore, and possibly erasing features of the landscape that one would associate with a former rail corridor.

The view down the corridor in the Bukit Timah Station area on 1st July 2011.

The view from Bukit Timah Station.

Another look at the work in the vicinity of the station. Earth is being filled over the corridor erasing any traces of the former rail corridor.

There is no doubt that the area is one of the favourites amongst the many Singaporeans who now have walked the length of the rail corridor, being one that in its relative isolation was blessed with lush greenery and a wonderful array of bird and insect life. It was here that one can get up close to the munias that frolic on the railway tracks, the noisy parakeets that flutter on the branches of the trees above and even oriental pied hornbills flying overhead. It was also here where one could dance with the wondrous colours of the delightful dragonflies and butterflies and get a breath of wonderfully fresh air as dawn turns into day.

The area was where one could once dance with dragonflies.

There was a wealth of flora and fauna in the area - a pair of Scaly Breasted Munias seen on the railway tracks in June 2011.

The area is also probably one of the less accessible areas of the tracks and there was already some concerns raised prior to the work commencing to remove the tracks in the area about an access road that was being built into the area through the lush Clementi woodland that separates the area from Clementi Road to which the authorities have explained was necessary to facilitate the removal works which was being carried out within an extremely tight schedule and the authorities pledging that SLA and the contractors involved would work with NParks to plan access routes and minimise the damage to the existing flora and fauna. That however does not seem to be what is happening on the ground, and even with photos I have seen and feedback I have received from friends, I was unprepared for what I saw in my first visit to the area since it was closed up to the public on the 18th of July. What greeted me was a scene beyond what I imagined could have happened in a mere two weeks. Beyond the removal of the tracks, sleepers and other structures along that stretch of the corridor, it looks as if the whole area has been transformed into a dusty work yard where there had been some of the most wonderful greenery. The entire width of the corridor seems as if it is not just an access road to the area that is being built, but an entire highway through from Holland Road to Bukit Timah Station, with even soil being brought in to raise the level of what had been the rail corridor erasing any traces that it might have once been a rail corridor. While the vegetation and the animals that make the area such a wonderful place to run off to, may find its way back to the area once work is completed, what is certainly of concern is that all the work that is being done has also altered the landscape of one of the prettiest parts of the rail corridor and with that, a lot of how it had been and any evidence of the railway it may have had is now a thing of the past.

Another view of the clearing and earth filling works.

A wide area has been cleared and now looks like a huge work yard.

The undisturbed view towards Bukit Timah Station on 17 July 2011.

Captioned on a previous post 'The sun sets over the rail corridor': 'A scene that would soon only be a memory - the rail corridor on the 17th of July 2011 just as I want to remember it'. How true it now all seems.

The view towards Bukit Timah Station on 31 July 2011.

Another view towards Bukit Timah Station on 31 July 2011.

Earth is being brought in and the level of the former corridor is being raised.

The new soil that is placed to raise the level of the corridor burying any traces of the original corridor beneath it.

It looks almost as if a road is being built over the former rail corridor.

An excavator sits on new earth being brought in to bury the rail corridor.

Vegetation that has been trampled on by the vehicles in the area.

The human invasion wouldn't be complete without litter left behind to clog streams in the area.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.







Fading faces from a once familiar place

22 07 2011

Those who frequented Tanjong Pagar Railway Station would probably remember the many faces that were associated with the station in one way or another. The people behind the once familiar faces are the ones who brought life and activity to the old station and with the station’s closure, may soon be forgotten. This is my attempt to capture some of the faces in the days that led up to the 30th of June 2011 just to help with the memory of what made Tanjong Pagar Railway Station a station that will forever be in our hearts.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






The sun sets over the rail corridor

21 07 2011

The 17th of July was a day when the railway corridor would have been seen in its original state for the very last time. The corridor, having been one of the few places in Singapore where time has stood still – little has changed over the eight decades since the railway deviation of 1932, would after the 17th see an alteration to it that will erase much of the memory of the railway, barely two weeks after the cessation of rail services through Singapore and into Tanjong Pagar. It was a railway that had served to remind us in Singapore of our historical links with the states of the Malayan Peninsula – the land on which the railway ran through having been transferred to the Malayan Railway through a 1918 Ordinance, a reminder that has endured well into the fifth decade of our independence.

The 17th of July offered most in Singapore a last chance to walk the tracks ... removal work started the following day with only a short 3km stretch of the tracks opened to the public unitl the end of July.

It was in the pale light of the moon that my last encounter with the railway tracks in the Bukit Timah Station area began.

The corridor is one that I have had many memories of, having had many encounters with it from the numerous train journeys that I made through Tanjong Pagar, as well as some from encounters that I had from my younger days watching from the backseat of my father’s car and also those that I had in clothed in the camouflage green of the army during my National Service. There are many parts of it that are special in some way or another to me, having always associated them with that railway we will no longer see, and the last day on which I could be reminded of this warranted a last glance at it, one that got me up well before the break of dawn, so that I could see it as how I would always want to remember it.

A scene that would soon only be a memory - the rail corridor on the 17th of July 2011.

It was at a short but very pretty stretch of the corridor that I decided to have a last glance at – a stretch that starts at the now empty and silent building that once served as Bukit Timah Station and continues south for another two kilometres or so. It was one that is marked by some of the most abundant greenery one can find along the corridor which even from the vantage of the train, is always a joy to glance at. Arriving in the darkness of the early morning, it was only the glow of the light of the waning but almost full moon that guided me towards the station which is now encircled by a green fence which I could barely make out. I was greeted by a menacing red light that shone from the end of the building, one that came from the security camera that even in the dark seemed out-of-place on the quaint structure that been the last place along the line where an old fashioned practice of exchanging a key token took place. The crisp morning air and the peace and calm that had eluded the corridor over the two weeks that followed the cessation of railway operations was just what I had woken up for and I quickly continued on my way down towards the concrete road bridge over the railway at Holland Road.

First light on the 17th along the corridor near Holland Green.

It wasn’t long before first light transformed the scene before me into a scene that I desired, one that through the lifting mist, revealed a picture of calm and serenity that often eludes us as we interact with our urban world. It is a world that I have developed a fondness for and one in which I could frolic with the colourful butterflies and dragonflies to the songs of joy that the numerous bird that inhabit the area entertain us with. It was a brief but joyous last glance – it wasn’t too long before the calm with which the morning started descended into the frenzy of that the crowds that the closing of the railway had brought. That did not matter to me as I had that last glance of the corridor just as I had wanted to remember it, with that air of serenity that I have known it for, leaving it with that and the view of the warm glow of the silent tracks bathed in the golden light of the rising sun etched forever in my memory.

First signs of the crowd that the closing of the railway brought.

A last chance to see the corridor as it might have been for 79 years.

For some, it was a last chance to get that 'planking' shot.

Signs of what lay ahead ... the secondary forest being cleared in the Clementi woodland area to provide access for removal works on the railway tracks in the area.

Weapons of rail destruction being put in place.

The scene at the truss bridge over Bukit Timah Road as I left ...

Despite coming away with how I had wanted to remember the rail corridor, I did take another look at another area of it that evening. It was at a that stretch that is just north of the level crossing at Kranji, one that would in the days that have passed us by, would have led to a village on stilts that extended beyond the shoreline, one of the last on our northern shores. The village, Kampong Lorong Fatimah, now lies partly buried under the new CIQ complex today, and had stood by the side of the old immigration complex. Today, all that is left of it beyond the CIQ complex is a barren and somewhat desolate looking piece of land, one that feels cut-off from the rest of Singapore. The stretch is where the last 2 kilometres of the line runs before it reaches Woodlands Train Checkpoint, an area that is restricted and one where it would not be possible to venture into. And it is there where the all train journeys now end – a cold and imposing place that doesn’t resemble a station in any way.

What's become of the last level crossing to be used in Singapore - the scene at Kranji Level Crossing with road widening works already underway.

Another view of the former level crossing, concrete blocks occupy the spot where the yellow signal hut once stood.

An outhouse - the last remnant of the crossing left standing.

Walking through the area, it would not be hard to notice what is left of the huge mangrove swamp that once dominated the area – evidence of which lies beyond a girder bridge (the northernmost railway bridge in Singapore and one of three that would be removed) that crosses Sungei Mandai Besar some 700 metres north of the level crossing. The corridor here for the first kilometre or so is rather narrow with a green patches and cylindrical tanks to the east of it and an muddy slope that rises to what looks like an industrial area to the west. It is through the area here that I pass what was a semaphore signal pole – the northernmost one, before coming to the bridge.

The scene just north of the crossing.

The northernmost semaphore signal for the crossing in Singapore.

The last trolley on the tracks?

The northernmost railway bridge - the girder bridge over Sungei Mandai Besar. The bridge is one of three along the line that will be removed.

Sungei Mandai Besar.

It is about 200 metres beyond the bridge that the corridor starts to fan out to accommodate a loop line which looked as if it had been in a state of disuse with sleepers and rails missing from it. To the east of this widened area, tall trees and a grassland line the corridor and to the west, line of dense trees and shrubs partailly obscures part of the mangrove that had once stretched down to the Sungei Kadut. It is just north of this that the relatively short trek comes to an abrupt end. On the approach to Woodlands Train Checkpoint, sandbags over what had been the main line and a huge red warning sign serving as a reminder of what lay ahead. It is at the approach to the checkpoint that two signs serve as barriers to entry. It is beyond this that one can see a newly installed buffer at the end of the main line, and it is in seeing this that the realisation that that now is the end of a line, not just for the railway that ran through Singapore, but also for that grand old station which now lies cut-off from the railway that was meant to elevate it to a status beyond all the stations of the Far East. With the physical link now severed, that promise would now never be fulfilled, and all that is left is a building that has lost its sould and now stands in solitude, looking somewhat forlorn.

200 metres north of the bridge, the corridor widens to accommodate a loop line.

Evidence of the mangrove that once dominated the area right down to Sungei Kadut.

The northernmost stretch of the corridor.

Walking the bicycle over the wide strecth just short of Woodlands checkpoint.

Dismantling work that was already in evidence.

Sandbags on what was the main line and a warning posted ...

The end of the line- Woodlands Train Checkpoint lies beyond the signs.

It was at this point that I turned back, walking quietly into the glow that the setting sun had cast on the railway corridor. It is at Kranji that the setting sun and the skies above seemed to have conspire to provide a fitting and brilliant show over the place where there had once been an equally colourful crossing with its yellow hut and old fashioned gate. It was in the golden glow of the sunset that I spotted a fmailiar face, one of a fellow traveller on that tearful final journey out of Tanjong Pagar on the morning of the last day of train operations through Singapore, Mr Toh. Mr Toh is one who has been travelling on the trains out of and back into Tanjong Pagar since he was one, was on his final nostalgia motivated journey that final day just as I was, and was at Kranji to complete a final leg of his own exploration of the entire length of the tracks through Singapore. We exchanged our goodbyes, at the same time saying one last goodbye to the railway, as night fell on the last level crossing that was used in Singapore, and on the railway corridor as we had known it for one last time.

A track back into the colours of the setting sun.

A final look south towards Kranji Road.

The view of the setting of the sun over the railway at Kranji Road.

Night falls over the railway corridor as we knew it for one last time.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the proposal on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






A walk around the yard

14 07 2011

In the days that led up to the closure of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, I was able to meet many people who were in some way connected to the station and to the Malayan Railway or what is KTM in its current incarnation. That allowed me to not just hear the wonderful stories some had to share, but also to be brought around places that would have otherwise been hidden to me. One of the places I did get to see was the train yard at Tanjong Pagar, sandwiched in between what was the KTM flats at Spooner Road in Kampong Bahru and the Malaysian Customs yard, and the lead up to the station itself.

A walk around the yard took me back to a time we have forgotten. The highlight was the turntable which was installed in 1932.

The end of the line ... the yard closed together with the station on the 30th of June 2011.

The yard is a wonderful place to discover, one on which I had heard many stories about from friends who went to school in the area at a time when perhaps access to the area was much less controlled. One of those that I met in and around the neighbourhood who was actually a son of a signalman with the Malayan Railway and lived in Spooner Road in the 1960s spoke of how the children growing-up in and around the area would see the yard as a huge playground, one which provided a host of hiding places when playing hide-and-seek. Many were oblivious to the danger playing in the yard posed, and there were several occasions during which unfortunate incidents involving a moving locomotive and a child did occur.

The yard was a playground for many who grew -up in and around it.

A general view around the train yard.

The yard is also where the most wonderful of railway implements could be found, one that was used to turn a locomotive of more than a hundred tonnes around with only the strength exerted by a single person. The turntable which according to a caption on a wonderful aerial photograph of it published in The Straits Times 2nd July 2011′s edition (a scan of which can be found at this link), was built in 1892, and installed in the yard when the station was built in 1932.

The locomotive turntable which was installed in 1932.

A view of one of the girders and wheels of the turntable which supports weights of well over 100 tonnes.

The lever (in a vertical locked position) which can be lowered to turn a locomotive on the table through the effort of just one person.

As with much of the former railway land around Singapore, stepping into the yard seems like a step back in time … one which takes one back to the softer and gentler Singapore that we have somehow lost in trying to catch up with the developed world, not just in the setting one finds oneself in, but in the many people that one meets. It is in meeting the wonderful folks who kept things running behind the scenes at Tanjong Pagar that I have come to understand the attachment many have for the places these folks have not just worked in, but which has become very much a part of their lives – some having worked and lived around the yard for over a quarter of a century. Some expressed a sense of loss. Loss for a life that they would soon leave behind as they prepared to make that big move out of Tanjong Pagar.

Spanners in the works ....

Scenes that we have lost in the modernisation of our island nation.

Familiar scenes for many who lived and work around the yard which is now lost with the big move out. Many workers at the yard have worked there for many years.

A reflection we will no longer see ...

Even as the move out wasn’t quite complete, there were signs that some of the structures in the area were already being dismantled. Walking past the carriage washing and maintenance sheds and the locomotive shops and sheds, and turning around the corner, I could see that the maintenance shed for the luxury E&O Trains, the last of which departed from Tanjong Pagar on that very wet Sunday in June when the flood waters rose, was already being taken down.

The locomotive shop and shed.

The loco shop.

The loco workshop.

A locomotive in the shop.

Coming to a halt.

The E&O maintenance shed being dismantled.

Continuing on past the yard on the approach to the station – a route that is taken by the staff at the station on a daily basis, there is a cluster of buildings, some which were meant to house senior officers at the station, and one that served as the Railway Sports and Recreation clubhouse. Further along, we come to the final stretch that leads to Tanjong Pagar … one that goes past the section of tracks to and from the station’s platforms, and past the new and old signalling houses, which for many who would have seen it everyday on the way into the station, would be on a road that will never again be taken.

The railway sports and recreation club house.

The railway inspector's shed.

A daily walk down a road that as of the 1st of July for many who worked at the station, will never again be taken.

A last glance down the road.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the proposal on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.









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