A search for a lost countryside

27 02 2014

Together with several jalan-jalan kaki, I set off on a Sunday morning from Khatib MRT Station in search of a lost countryside. The area in which we sought to find that lost world, is one, that in more recent times has been known to us as Nee Soon and Ulu Sembawang. It was a part of Singapore that I first became acquainted with it in my childhood back in the early 1970s, when an area of rural settlements and village schools that were interspersed with poultry, pig and vegetable farms that awaited discovery along its many minor roads. It was also an area where the British military did  leave much in terms of evidence of their former presence.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

Fed by the waters of several rivers that spilled out into the Straits of Johor or Selat Tebrau, which included Sungei Seletar and its tributaries, Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and its tributaries and Sungei Sembawang, the area was to first attract gambier and pepper plantations in the mid 1800 with which came the first settlements. As with other plantation rich riverine areas of Singapore, the area attracted many Teochew immigrants, becoming one of several Teochew heartlands found across rural Singapore. Pineapple and rubber were to replace gambier and pepper in the 1900s – when the association with the likes of Bukit Sembawang and Lim Nee Soon, names which are now synonymous with the area, was to start.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Much has changed since the days of Chan Ah Lak’s gambier and pepper plantations – for which the area was originally known as Chan Chu Kang, the days of Lim Nee Soon’s pineapple and rubber cultivation and processing exploits, and even from the days when I made my first visits to the area. There are however, parts of it that in which some semblance of the countryside that did once exist can be found, parts where one can quite easily find that much needed escape from the concrete and overly manicured world that now dominates the island.

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)".

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)”.

One of two places where those reminders can be found is the area around Bah Soon Pah Road. The road, strange as it may seem, is in fact named after Lim Nee Soon – Bah Soon having been a nickname stemming from him being a Straits Born Chinese or “Baba”. These days, the truncated Bah Soon Pah Road, is still an area that is very much associated with agriculture, being an area that is at the heart of the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority’s (AVA) efforts to promote agrotechnology in Singapore. Playing host to the Nee Soon Agrotechnology Park, there are several farms to be found along the road, including one in which hydroponic vegetables for the local market are cultivated.

A link with the area's heritage.

Over the fence – a link with the area’s heritage.

An interesting sight along Bah Soon Pah Road is the building that now houses the AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre. The building – a huge bungalow built on stilts, in a style that resembles the “black and white” houses that the British built to house their administrators and senior military men and their families, probably built in the early 1900s with the arrival of the pineapple and rubber plantations, is in fact a physical link to Lim Nee Soon’s association with the area. Sitting atop a small hill – you do get a magnificent view of it from a distance from Yishun Avenue 1, the grand bungalow was I have been advised, a former residence of the assistant manager of Lim Nee Soon’s plantation, thus providing a link to a past that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The AVA's Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager's residence in Lim Nee Soon's estate.

The AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager’s residence in Lim Nee Soon’s estate.

From the west end of Bah Soon Pah Road, we turned north at Sembawang Road – once named Seletar Road. While Seletar today is the area where the former Seletar Airbase, now Seletar Aerospace Park is, Seletar did once refer to a large swathe of land in the north in, particularly so in the days before the airbase was built. The name Seletar is associated the Orang Seletar who inhabited the Straits of Johor, Selat Tebrau, a group of the sea dwellers around the coast and river mouths of northern Singapore and southern Johor from the days before Raffles staked the East India Company’s claim to Singapore. Seletar is a word that is thought to have been derived from the Malay word for strait or selat. Seletar Road, which would have brought travellers on the road to the Naval Base, and to Seletar Pier right at its end, was renamed Sembawang Road in 1939 so as to avoid confusion to road users headed to Seletar Airbase (then RAF Seletar) which lay well to its east. 

The road to the former residence.

The road to the former residence.

The drive down Sembawang Road, up to perhaps the early 1980s, was one that did take you through some wonderful countryside we no longer see anymore. One of my first and memorable trips down the road was in a bus filled with my schoolmates – which turned out to be annual affair whilst I was in primary school. The destination was Sembawang School off Jalan Mata Ayer. where we would be bused to, to support the school’s football team when they played in the finals of the North Zone Primary Schools competition.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon's rubber factory and the surrounding area.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon’s rubber factory further south, and the surrounding area.

The school, the site of which is now occupied by a condominium Euphony Gardens, would be remembered for its single storey buildings – commonly seen in Singapore’s rural areas, as it would be for its football field. The field did somehow seem to have been laid on an incline, a suspicion that was to be confirmed by the difficulty the referee had in placing the ball and preventing it from rolling, when for a penalty kick was awarded during one of the matches.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

The walk from Bah Soon Pah Road to Jalan Mata Ayer, did take us past two military camps. One, Khatib Camp as we know it today, is a more recent addition to the landscape. It would probably be of interest to some, that the original Khatib Camp was one used by the Malaysian military, housing the Tentera Laut Di-Raja Malaysia (TLMD) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) training school KD Pelandok from 1971 to 1980 and was known as Kem Khatib. The Malaysian association with it started in 1964 when it was first set up to house a Malaysian infantry battalion. This came at a time when Singapore was a part of Malaysia.

RMN officers in training at KD Pelandok in Singapore in the 1970s (photograph online at http://farm1.staticflickr.com/167/439314471_c932143651_o.jpg).

Apparently KD Pelandok was where the RMN, who in fact maintained their main base at Woodlands in Singapore until 1979, first carried out their own training of naval officers. Prior to this, naval officers had been sent to the UK to be trained. The camp was returned to Singapore on 2 February 1982, after the training school was shifted to the RMN’s main naval base in Lumut. A new Khatib Camp, now the home of the SAF’s Artillery, was built on the site and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) moved into it in 1983.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

One of the things I remember about the new Khatib Camp in its early days was this helmet shaped roof of its sentry post. Khatib Camp in its early days also housed the SAF Boys School, which later became the SAF Education Centre (SAFEC). The school provided a scheme in which ‘N’-level certificate holders could continue their education fully paid to allow them to complete their ‘O’-levels, after which students would be have to serve a six-year bond out with the SAF. In more recent time, Khatib Camp has been made into one of the centres where NSmen (reservists) would take their annual fitness tests, the IPPT. It is also where the dreaded Remedial Training (RT) programmes are conducted for those who fail to pass the IPPT.

A southward view - there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

A southward view – there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

Across from Khatib Camp, is Dieppe Barracks. Built originally to house British military units, it is now used by the SAF’s HQ Guards, and is one the last former British army camps to retain the word “barracks” in its name – a reminder of its association with the British forces, and also the New Zealand forces. It housed the 1st Battalion of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment from 1971 to 1989 leaving a distinctly New Zealand flavour on the area as well as in the areas of Sembawang up north. This was as part of the protection force first under the ANZUK arrangements that followed the British pullout in 1971. With the Australian forces pulling out in the mid 1970s, the New Zealanders stayed  on as the New Zealand Force South East Asia (NZ Force SEA). One of the things that was hard not to miss on the grounds of the barracks was how different the obstacle course in the open field in the north of the barrack grounds looked from those we did see in the SAF camps then.

Dieppe Barracks when it housed British units in the 1960s (online at http://www.nmbva.co.uk/keith%2012.jpg).

The entrance to Dieppe Barracks seen in the 1980s when it was used by 1 RNZIR with the fence that I so remember (online at http://anzmilitarybratsofsingapore.com/group/gallery/1_20_01_09_5_21_11.jpg).

Just north of Dieppe is where Jalan Mata Ayer can be found (where the school with the inclined football field was). The name “Mata Ayer” is apparently a reference to the source of the now quite well-known Sembawang Hot Springs. The once rural road led to a village called Kampong Mata Ayer, also known as Kampong Ayer Panas, close to the area where the hot spring, now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp, is.

Dieppe Barracks in 1975 (image online at http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/new-zealand-defence-force-headquarters-singapore, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 31-Jan-2014).

Continuing north along the road, there are several clusters of shophouses across the road from where Yishun New Town has come up. Several shops here do in fact have their origins in the villages of the area. One well known business is a traditional Teochew bakery, Gin Thye Cake Maker. Specialising in Teochew pastries, the bakery goes back to 1964 when Mdm. Ang Siew Geck started it in her village home at Bah Soon Pah Road. Described by The Straits Times as the Last of the Teochew bakeries, its biscuits are a popular choice amongst its customers. You would also be able to spot traditional wedding baskets lined up at the top of one of the shelves. The baskets are used by the bakery to deliver traditional sweets – as might have once been the case, for weddings. 

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Not far up from the shophouses, we come to the area where a relatively new Chong Pang Camp is. The camp sits on what once was a very picturesque part of Singapore, Ulu Sembawang. What was visible of the area from Sembawang Road were the fishing ponds and the lush greenery that lay beyond them. The greenery did obscure an area that did lie beyond it, that was particularly rich in bird life and was up to the 1990s, a popular area for birding activities.

Henry Cordeiro UluSembawang

It was an area that we did once get a wonderful view of from Jalan Ulu Sembawang, a road that rose up from close to the back of the then Seletaris bottling plant at its junction with Sembawang Road towards another rural area of villages and farms. The view, from a stretch of the road that ran along a ridge, was what my father did describe as being the most scenic in Singapore that looked across a rolling landscape of vegetable farms for almost as far as the eye could see. Jalan Ulu Sembawang was also one of the roads that led to Lorong Gambas in the Mandai area – an area many who did National Service would remember it as a training area that was used up to perhaps the 1990s.

The end of the road - Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The end of the road – Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

A stop along the way that we did spend some time at was the hot springs, around which there seems now to be much superstition. The spring, which was discovered by a municipal ranger on the property of a Seah Eng Keong in 1908. Seah Eng Keong was the son of gambier and pepper plantation owner Mr Seah Eu Chin who I understand from Claire Leow, one half of the female duo who maintains All Things Bukit Brown and who joined us on the walk, also owned gambier and pepper plantations in the area. Seah Eu Chin would also be well known as being the founder of the Ngee Ann Kongsi.

The surviving well of the spring.

The surviving well of the spring.

The spring water was over the years, bottled in various ways and under various names, first by Mr Seah, and then by Fraser and Neave (F&N) from 1921. One of the names its was bottled as was Zombun which was, on the evidence of a newspaper article, a source of a joke – with waiters referring to “Air Zombun” as a similar sounding “Air Jamban” or water from the toilet in Malay.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

Bottling was to be disrupted by the war – the Japanese, known for their fondness for thermal baths, were said to have built such baths at the hot springs – the water, which flows out at around 66 degrees Celcius, with its strong sulphur content (which is evident from the unmistakable smell you would be able to get of it), is thought to have curative properties – especially for skin and rheumatic conditions.  It’s flow was disrupted by allied bombing in November 1944 and it was only in 1967 that F&N started re-bottling the water under a subsidiary Semangat Ayer Limited using the brand name Seletaris (now the name of a condominium that sits on the site of the plant).

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

While it did remain the property of F&N, many were known to have bathed at the spring before 1967 and also again after the plant was closed in the mid 1980s, when its land was acquired by the government. The spring – with water now running out of pipes and taps, in now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp – which initially meant that it was closed to the public. Since May 2002 however, after petitions were submitted to the authorities, the spring has been opened to the public. Access to the spring is now through a fenced pathway that cuts into the camp’s grounds. A warning is scribbled on the red brick structure that surrounds a surviving well that speaks of a curse – that anyone who vandalises the hot spring will be the subject of a curse.

The writing on the wall - a curse for any would be vandals.

The writing on the wall – a curse for any would be vandals.

From the spring and Jalan Ulu Sembawang, now a stub that leads to a wooded area where development doesn’t seem very far away – an international school is already being built there, we can to the end of the adventure. While it is sad to see how another place in Singapore which holds the memories of the gentle world I once enjoyed as a child has been transformed into another place I struggle to connect with; I did at least manage to find a few things that does, in some way remind of that old world that I miss. Developments in the area are however taking off at a furious pace and with the construction of elevated portion of the North-South Expressway that is due to start next year and will have a significant impact on the area’s landscape; it may not be long before it does become another place of beauty that we have abandoned in favour of a cold and overly manicured landscape in which there will be little left, except for “heritage” markers, to remind us of what it did once mean to us.

It now is a wooded area awaiting future development.

Jalan Ulu Sembawang is now is an area reclaimed by nature awaiting future development.

Where a school is now being built - the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.

Where a school is now being built – the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.





A cross at a crossroad

15 04 2013

The long and somewhat winding road journeys of my childhood are ones I now look back with much fondness. They are ones that were to put in touch with a Singapore that I grew to love, and a Singapore we have long forgotten. One of these drives which would take place during the Chinese New Year and on the occasions we ventured to one of the “ends of Singapore” to indulge in seafood, was to Punggol. Punggol was then a world away where the livestock population would in all probability have outnumbered the area’s human inhabitants.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

Punggol for me began at the junction where we would have to make a left turn from a busy Upper Serangoon Road even then to Punggol Road. It was at this point that it felt we would leave the built-up world behind and turn-off into what could probably have been considered a countryside we no longer have. It was where coconut trees seem to dominate the landscape (that at least was my impression) – that I noticed them more than anything else was probably because of the curious sight of many of them without their lightning struck tops – a sight that was in fact common throughout rural Singapore.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

The junction was one which was marked by two structures. One was the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary and the other a beautiful church which seemed out of place in the environment around it. And while much of the landscape of the area has been altered beyond recognition – the trees and high-density dwellings of pigs and poultry have now been replaced by towering blocks of high-density human dwellings and the stretch of Punggol Road where the junction is has been renamed as Hougang Avenue 8, the two structures – now looking further out of place in the new environment, are still there to serve as reminders of a time and place we would otherwise have little memories of.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

The church, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Nativity Church in short, is one that is hard to miss, with its steeple rising high above the structures around it. One of several beautiful examples of a legacy that the French Catholic Missionaries left behind in South-East Asia, the church is of a form we seem to have forgotten to appreciate. Several examples of the style, commonly used in Catholic houses of worship built by the French missionaries in the 1800s and in early 1900s exhibit, do exist on the island. These include the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the de-consecrated CHIJ Chapel (now part of the CHIJMES complex) and the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, all of which now feature in the growing list of Singapore’s National Monuments.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of the French Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of Neo-Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics. The marble statue of Mary in the foreground is interestingly a gift from Sultan Ibrahim of Johor in 1946.

Built in what can possibly be described as a European inspired Neo-Gothic style adapted for the tropics, the buildings are very similar in appearance. Nativity Church which was completed in 1901, is however, the only one that was placed in a rural setting – pointing not just to a pattern of faith of the community in the area, but also perhaps of a pattern of immigration to and settlement on the island of Singapore.

The transept which was an addition to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The transept which was an addition made in 1933 to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The area is of course one of several rural areas in which the Teochew community, the second largest group of Chinese immigrants to Singapore, was dominant. The community, many of whom converted to the Catholic faith as well as to other forms of Christianity, were involved in fishing, in farming, as well as in the rubber (and before that pineapple) plantations through much of the countryside along the northern coast of Singapore. With the community and the adoption of faith, missionaries erected several houses of worship – and there are, as a result, several reminders of this in the form of churches, or in the absence of them, parishes which had their origins in these rural Teochew communities. These include the Nativity Church, the Parish of St. Anthony (now in Woodlands) which was previously based off Stephen Lee Road in Mandai, and also a church with a very distinct Teochew flavour in its architecture, St. Joseph’s Church at Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Seeing the light - the soft light illuminating the nave - part of the original structure.

Seeing the light – the soft light illuminating the nave – part of the original structure.

The background to the parish community, the church, as well as on the architecture of the beautiful building is well documented. Much of this information is available on the church’s website, as well as on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s page on the building. Being a Catholic myself, buildings such as these represent a time when architecture and much of what when on around the church, was dedicated to the greater glory of the maker. On a personal level, my interactions with the parish and church are limited, coming to the church only on occasion – the last time I did spend some time in it was on the occasion of my sister’s wedding at the church some years ago. The opportunity to step in to the church again came recently when I found myself nearby with some time to spare.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

The nave of the church.

The nave of the church.

Churches are always places where I find a great sense of peace in and in the quiet of the Saturday morning I was there, it was just that I found in stepping through the huge doors at the entrance, finding the interior bathed in the soft natural light of the morning streaming through the generous openings typically found in the tropically adapted Neo-Gothic church design. The church both internally and externally is a visual treat. On the insides, its high vaulted ceiling is accompanied by the rows of arches which would typically line the nave. Focus is drawn towards the Sanctuary bathed in the coloured light of stained glass a building such as this would look bare without.

Some of the church's stained glass windows.

Some of the church’s stained glass windows.

The interior with its adornments and furnishings, is a wonderful reminder of how Catholic churches used to be. The dark stained carved wooden pews is a rare find now with most churches around having been built in more modern times. The walls of the transept are where the statues representing the various saints are placed. These are typical of most Catholic churches and in the older ones it would be in purpose built niches as the ones found in this church in which the statues are placed. The windows, which can be opened, provide not just natural ventilation, but also light – typical of architecture adapted for the tropically environment which we do not see in modern buildings built to be air-conditioned.

A view down the aisle.

A view down the aisle.

A statue of St. Vainney placed in a niche at the transept.

A statue of St. John Vianney placed in a niche at the transept.

There is a lot as well that is interesting about the church’s history, including that a statue of Mary was donated by Sultan Ibrahim of Johor (the great grandfather of the current Sultan of Johor). Placed in a prominent position in front of the church, that is a reminder of the close ties bewteen the southern sultanate and colony which was once a part of it. The church today, while serving the needs of the parish community – which is still predominently Teochew, has also reached out to newer migrants – since the end of last year, it is also where the Korean Catholic community has been based at.

Coloured glass windows.

Coloured glass windows which can be opened allow the church to be naturally illuminated and ventilated.

The church in continuing to serve the spiritual needs of the evolving community does stand as a reminder of the purpose it was built to serve. Gazetted as a National Monument since 2005, it is one that will also stand as a reminder of the area’s past, a past which with the spread of the urban world to the area, is one which is increasing hard to remember.





Landmarks on my northern journeys

4 04 2013

It was in days before the expressways made an appearance that a road trip to Malaysia (and back) would involve that seemingly endless journey along what appeared to be a long and winding Woodlands Road. My parents often took a drive up to the “Federation”, as my father would put it, providing me me many encounters of a Woodlands Road which had pretty much a far-away feel to it.

A factory from the 1960s.

A factory building on Woodlands Road that has been a marker of sorts from the 1960s.

There wasn’t much to do in the back seat back then, and passing time involved staring out the window which back in those days were kept opened to provide much needed ventilation. In watching the changing world outside as we passed, it would be recognisable structures or landscapes that I would keep a lookout for, each serving as a marker to provide an indication of where I was on the otherwise never-ending journey.

Now more of a road on which heavy vehicles get much joy in travelling way above the speed limit, Woodlands Road was in day before the BKE, the main trunk road linking Central Singapore to the Causeway.

Now more of a road on which heavy vehicles get much joy in travelling way above the speed limit, Woodlands Road was in day before the BKE, the main trunk road linking Central Singapore to the Causeway.

The end of Woodlands Road close to the Causeway was one that had several of these markers. Taking my usual place on the left side of the car, it would have been the cultivation ponds of the Vesop Monosodium Glutamate factory just after the 15th milestone of the road which always fascinated me that would have indicated the approach of the Causeway.

The Vesop MSG Factory (http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

The Vesop MSG Factory (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

On the return journey, there were several landmarks that were to provide me with the much appreciated welcome home, including the cluster of factories that line the southbound side of Woodlands just after the bend after the Sivan Temple at the 14½ milestone. The first would have been the Metal Box Factory with its very distinctive sign. The factory, since demolished, was  set on a low hill, occupying the site since 1951 when it was opened to manufacture metal cans to meet the needs of the local pineapple canning industry. The company had previously imported pre-fabricated cans for assembly in Singapore. The factory closed sometime in 1992. A blog post related to the factory and the area where it was which may be interest can be found on Lam Chun See’s Good Morning Yesterday: Singapore, 1961 – 20/4 Marsiling Road (by Tim Light).

The Metal Box Factory sign , seen during a strike by workers of the factory in 1963 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas)

The Metal Box Factory sign , seen during a strike by workers of the factory in 1963 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas)

Besides the Metal Box Factory, there were a few other recognisable factory buildings which stood out because of their elevated positions along the same stretch to look out for. One was the Khinco Factory located around the 13th milestone. The buildings of the factory are still around, falling seemingly into disrepair. The Khinco factory was one that produced a previously well known brand of metal office furniture in Singapore and Malaysia. The factory set up in 1967, was a joint venture between Khinco and National Art Metal Corporation of Australia. After going through several changes of ownership over the years, it went into receivership sometime in the early 1980s. The premises has since been taken over by Tan Chong Motor which operated a servicing centre there as well setting up a Quality Assurance Centre (on the basis of a sign which is still there) later.

The former Khinco factory.

The former Khinco factory.

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One other prominent building dating back to the 1960s which is still around was that of the Union Factory, just south of Mandai Road. The factory bottled the popular Pepsi Cola, Mirinda and Schweppes soft drinks in Singapore and more information on this can be found in a previous entry from June last year. The road is currently undergoing a transformation, particularly along the stretch south of Mandai Road and it won’t be long before these once familiar markers are replaced by landmarks which will define the what the new Singapore has become.

A peek through an opening in the gate ... a reminder perhaps of how the former Khinco factory buildings' were used.

A peek through an opening in the gate … a reminder perhaps of how the former Khinco factory buildings’ were used.





Finding the old in the new – a walk down part of Thomson Road

12 01 2013

The stretch of Thomson Road between Balestier Road and Moulmein Road is one that I am well acquainted with. It is a stretch that was an invariable part of the twelve years of almost daily bus journeys to kindergarten, primary and secondary school and best known perhaps for a religious landmark, the Catholic Church of St. Alphonsus, popularly known as ‘Novena Church’ – so much so that the church has lent its name to the area where it is located. The twelve years, from 1969 to 1980, were ones in which there were significant changes made to the road and its surroundings. One big change was the widening of the road which resulted in pieces of property on the west side of the road losing valuable frontages. Another was the addition of a private women’s and children’s hospital which has set the standards for maternity hospitals in Singapore.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened, but does contain a few recognisable landmarks.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened.

The hospital, Thomson Medical Centre, came up close to the end of the twelve years, occupying a plot of land at the start of the south end of the stretch. Known for its innovative approach towards the birth experience of mothers, it does today feature another innovation – the basement of the refurbished building hides one of the first mechanised car parks in Singapore which was added in the mid 2000s. The hospital is the brainchild of a well known gynaecologist, Dr. Cheng Wei Chen, better known as Dr. W. C. Cheng. Built at a cost of $10 million on a terrace on the western side of the road – one of the buildings it was built in place of was a glorious mansion which Dr. Cheng had used as his clinic, the hospital’s opening in 1979 saw a hospital built so to make delivery a less than clinical experience.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr. W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book).

The house which Dr. Cheng used as his clinic was a landmark in the area for many years. Standing on a terrace behind a wall, it never failed to catch my attention over the many bus journeys I made. The house I was to discover, does have an interesting history that goes well beyond the clinic. Besides being the home of Dr. Cheng’s in-laws – Dr. Cheng had moved his practice to the house in the early 1970s from a clinic he operated on the second floor of the old Cold Storage on Orchard Road, the house, was also where the origins of Novena Church in Singapore could be traced to. That I will come to a little later. Besides the clinic, there was another landmark (or so it seemed) that was brought down in 1978 to make way for the hospital – a four storey building named Adam Court and an associated two storey building which served as a garage. Adam Court housed one of the first Yamaha Music Schools in Singapore which moved into it at the end of the 1960s. A check in the online newspaper archives reveals that there was also a private school, Adam Court Educational Centre, which operated for a while in the building at the start of the 1970s. (I have also since posting this learnt that another music school belonging to Mrs. Madeline Aitken, who had once been described as the ‘grand dame of piano teachers’ had occupied the building before Yamaha moved in).

Another view of the mansion - it had been the belong to Dr Cheng's in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there.

Another view of the mansion – it had been the belong to Dr Cheng’s in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The mansion had also been the first premises of the Redemptorist mission which arrived in 1935 – the Redemptorists run the Novena Church in Singapore.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng's clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979. The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng’s clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

What is perhaps today the most recognisable landmark in the area is Novena Church. Its origins can be traced back to the arrival from Australia of the Redemptorist mission in Singapore in 1935. The Redemptorist community is best known for its promotion of devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, devotions referred to as ‘Novena’ from the Latin word ‘novem’ for nine – the devotions involve prayers made over nine consecutive occasions. Devotional prayer services or ‘Novena’ sessions held on Saturdays at the church have over the years proven to be very popular with both followers and non-followers of the faith and the current Redemptorist church, the Church of St. Alphonsus, has come to be referred to as ‘Novena Church’.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979. The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

The Redemptorist community upon their arrival, rented the mansion where Dr. Cheng was to later set up his clinic and only moved from the premises after the Second World War ended, first up Thomson Road to where the Chequers Hotel once stood (which later became the ill-fated Europa Country Club Resort). It at the second premises where the first public Novena devotions were held, commencing in November 1945. It was in 1950 that they moved to their current premises. A new chapel which became the Church of St Alphonsus (after the founder of the order) designed by Swan and Maclaren was built and was blessed on 14 May 1950. Several structures have been added since: a bell tower and residences at the back of the Church were added in 1956; side verandahs in the 1980s; and the St. Clement Pastoral Centre and new residences in the 1990s.

Inside Novena Church - the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Inside Novena Church – the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Even with the more recent additions the appearance of the church is still as recognisable as it was during my younger days. The church building itself is one dominated by triple arc pediment at the front. There is however, a huge change that may soon render that as a less recognisable feature of the church. Although the building has been gazetted for conservation on 8 June 2011, it will soon see itself in the shadow of a new and much larger church building which will come up next to it. This is part of a necessary $45 million expansion which will not only see a much-needed expansion of the church’s seating capacity, it will also see the construction of a basement car park and a new pastoral centre (the present one will be demolished to make way for the new building). Work will commence once 70% of necessary funds have been raised.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building (image source: http://novenachurch.com).

Besides the church, there are also several structures which date back to my days in the school or public bus. There are two sets of private apartment blocks on the same side of the church just north of it which seems to be a constant there. The block further from the church has a row of shops located beneath it. It was in that row of shops where one, Java Indah, had in the 1970s, sold the best lemper udang that I have bitten into. The cake shop was started by an Indonesian lady, Aunty Neo, sometime around 1973 – well before Bengawan Solo started. It was perhaps better known for its kueh lapis, which was also distributed through the various supermarkets. The shop was later run by Aunty Neo’s niece and moved for a while to Balestier Hill Shopping Centre before disappearing. The row of shops also contains a dive equipment shop which is still there after all these years – it was from the shop that I bought my first set of snorkeling equipment back in the late 1970s.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

The dive equipment shop today.

The dive equipment shop today.

Speaking of Balestier Hill Shopping Centre, that was an addition made sometime midway through the twelve year period. Situated across from where Thomson Medical Centre is today, the low-rise Housing and Development Board (HDB) cluster is where the very first Sri Dewa Malay barber shop moved to from its original location further south opposite Novena Church. Sri Dewa possibly started the Malay barber craze in the late 1960s and early 1970s and at its height, boasted of some 22 outlets. That outlet is one that I visited on many occasions – I was (as many of my schoolmates were) often sent there by the discipline master of Balestier Hill Technical School which I went to for technical classes in Secondary 3 and 4. He did always seem to have very different standards for what short and neat hair meant than our own discipline master.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

The cluster which a post office could once be found in has always seemed a rather quiet place. Work on it started sometime in 1975 and was completed in 1977, and it was built partly on land occupied by a row of terraced houses by Thomson Road. What perhaps was interesting was the land behind that row – it and the hill on which the technical school, the first to be purpose built (and two primary schools) came up in the early 1960s. That was once owned by the Teochew clan association Ngee Ann Kongsi and used as a Teochew cemetery around the turn of the 20th century. Evidence of this did surface during the clearing work to build Balestier Hill Shopping Centre – a coffin with some human remains was uncovered at the foot of the hill in December 1975.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

Right next to the road up to Balestier Hill in between the shopping centre and the private flats is a Shell service station which has been there since I first became acquainted with it. My father was a regular at the station, Yong Kim Service Station, from the days when he drove his Austin 1300. Loyalty gifts were commonly given to customers then, and my parents do still have some of the sets of cups and drinking glasses that were given out back at the end of the 1960s.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

Besides these structures, there are also several more which have not changed very much along the road. One is another religious complex, across from Novena Church, where the Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and the San Yu Adventist School can be found – which dates back to the 1950s. Not far from that is a house which has also been a constant there, retaining its original design over the years. The house is one that was affected by road widening – it once sat on a even larger plot of land which was lined with a row of palm trees along the road.

The Seventh Day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

The Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

Just south of Novena Church, across what is today Irrawaddy Road, is another part of the area which had for seemed to be always there. That however is also soon about to change. The cluster of blue and white buildings and a red brick wall in the fenced off compound takes one back to the late 1950s / early 1960s and were once where stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) (before that became corporatised) were located. They have since fallen into disuse and a recent tender exercise conducted by the Urban Redevelopment Corporation means that it will soon see it being redeveloped. The tender was awarded to Hoi Hup Realty Pte Ltd, Sunway Developments Pte Ltd and Hoi Hup J.V. Development Pte Ltd and is slated for mixed use development which will include a hotel.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

Adjacent to the former stores is where two storey shophouses which once lined the road and the Jewish Cemetery behind them have made way for a shopping mall, Novena Square (now Velocity @ Novena Square) and an Novena MRT station. The mall was completed in 2000 and was built by UOL. I remember the shophouses that lined the road for one thing – the image of an elderly man sitting on a chair outside the shophouse has remained in my memory from my upper primary school days. There was also a two storey house that had long stood at the corner of Thomson and Moulmein Roads which always seemed unoccupied and used as a storeroom during my primary school days which has since disappeared.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

One of the things I should perhaps mention is how busy the sidewalk down the slope from Novena Church were in the 1960s and early 1970s on Saturdays when hourly Novena services are held. Many among the thousands of church-goers that came and went thronged the sidewalks in search of treats from the food and snack stalls set up to cater for the crowd. Among the food vendors there were some who were to set up successful baking businesses later after the stalls were cleared.

The sidewalks just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.

The sidewalk just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.


Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention by Mr William Cheng, the architect of Thomson Medical Centre (TMC) that the old Adam Centre or Adam Court (Yamaha Music School) was not demoished but incorporated into the Right Wing Consultant Suite Block. That is where Dr. Cheng has his consultant suites on the ground floor. In addition, a new elevator core for 2 low speed lifts was added and annexed to the new TMC building with an extra floor was added.

Mr Cheng has also added that the TMC Building was designed and built in a record time of 8-9 months. During the construction Dr. Cheng did not maintained his practice at the renovated consultant suite on the ground of the old Adam Centre which he moved to from the old house and has remained there until today.

Mr Cheng also pointed out that iconic arches were introduced to the top of the TMC building’s façades to “maintain the spirit of the old 339 Thomson Road house”. These were moved to the new façades when the TMC building was extended in 2000 to 2002. The “innovative first-of-its kind in Singapore automatic computer controlled mechanical underground carpark” was built to provide additional car parking spaces.






Where Pepsi was once bottled on Woodlands Road

17 06 2012

Not far from where a well-remembered landmark is soon about to vanish, I was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar building that served as another landmark for me in a time that is now forgotten. It was in early days of my youth when that long and slow drive along Woodlands Road was to be tolerated in order to complete the journey to the Causeway. Then, buildings that caught my attention had served as landmarks that broke the monotony of the long journey. The building, an industrial building, was one that was unremarkable on its own. It stood out only because of what was manufactured in it – the obvious signs of which had stood out on the building’s façade. It was then, the premises of a certain Union Pte. Ltd. – the bottlers of Pepsi Cola, Mirinda and Schweppes soft drinks in Singapore and with the building placed prominently on a small hill was one that couldn’t at all be missed.

The premises on which Pepsi Cola was once bottled seen along Woodlands Road.

The bottling plant was opened in July 1969 – Union having invested a tidy sum of some three million dollars to take production and bottling of the popular brands of soft drinks to another level, prompting a move from their original premises in Havelock Road which dated back to their establishment in 1950. The move was to prove to be an ill-conceived one, as pressure from (somewhat ironically given the company’s name) the unions that represented their workers that was in part due to the move, was responsible for the company closing in 1974 following which the rights to bottling of the brands of soft drinks was won by Yeo Hiap Seng. The company and its premises in Woodlands was also involved in malicious rumours some two years before its closure when news spread that a dead body had been found in one of the vats used for production of Pepsi Cola and that bottles containing contaminated Pepsi had found their way into the market.

The factory building seen at its opening in July 1969 (source: National Archives).

The building today seems to have found a new lease of life, and seems to have been given a fresh coat of paint. Unremarkable as it is from an architectural viewpoint, I am grateful that I am still able to recognise it as one that lighted up those many journeys of a long time ago, journeys that coloured the days of an eventful childhood … and journeys that memories of, continue to bring colour to my life.





A landmark soon to vanish

16 06 2012

Long abandoned by an old world that it had once been a part of, the Shell service station at the end of Mandai Road had for many years now looked out of place in the emptiness of its surroundings. It would have once held a strategic position, being placed right at the end of one of the main routes that took vehicular traffic from the east over the top of the catchment reserve to Woodlands Road which connected with the West of the island, as well as to the North where the Causeway brought traffic across to Malaysia.

The end is here for a service station which has been a landmark at the end of Mandai Road at its junction with Woodlands Road for as long as I know.

The station has for me, also long been a marker. It marked not just the point where the then narrow and rural Mandai Road joined the long and equally narrow Woodlands Road, but also when the zoo came to Mandai, as the point where we would see signs showing the way to the zoo. I had on many occasions passed by the station – on the long journeys to and from the Causeway of my childhood and also later when it was along the route of bus service number 171 which I would take from camp while doing my National Service to Sembawang Road where I could connect with a 169 that took me to my home in Ang Mo Kio. The station had then and for long, worn the look of one of the old world it was a part of. Even with the more recent makeovers, it did, when it was still operating, seem set in that old world – the washroom was an ‘outhouse’ – in every sense of the word.

The outhouse see from behind a fence.

It has been a while since I’ve driven by an area that one doesn’t really need to drive through anymore with the new expressways that has taken traffic from both Woodlands and Mandai Roads. I did earlier today and saw what for long I had suspected would happen – the station, already abandoned, was being hoarded up for demolition. Having already driven past it, I decided to turn back to bid an old acquaintance farewell. As I took a final look at what had for so long been a familiar face, it is with sadness that I realise that the last marker of a world that has been all but forgotten will soon itself be erased.

The hoardings coming up around the landmark.

A soon to vanish sight.

Another soon to vanish sight.

Maybe the last remnant of an old world – a shed that seems to be beyond the area enclosed by the hoardings that have come up.


Update:

Good news! It seems that the station will be with us for some time to come … thanks to a reader, Mr Francis Ang, an update on what is happening at the station and also a few photographs (one of which I have posted below) have been provided which show that the station is apparently being upgraded. While it will perhaps lose some of that old world appeal it has had – it will still be right there where it seems to always have been!

The station as seen on 18 June 2012 (photo courtesy of Mr Francis Ang).






A face that I still see

9 04 2012

One of my favourite roads to take a journey on in Singapore is a stretch of Mandai Road that has got to be one of the more gorgeous drives in Singapore. It is a stretch that takes you past an area that is reminiscent of an older world at its junction with Sembawang road, around a bend where the road starts to rise northwards to an area where a short stretch of it runs along a body of water that in reflecting the colours of the setting sun takes on the appearance of a magical world. It is a drive I have enjoyed for four decades now – my first encounters with the stretch dating back to the end of the 1960s when the road was diverted around what had been a newly expanded body of water – what then was Seletar Reservoir (now Upper Seletar Reservoir). Those first encounters had been ones that would have involved a visit to the area around the large dam that contributed to the reservoir’s expansion – then a manicured area that offered some wonderful views of the reservoir not just from the top of the 20 metre high dam, but also the panorama one got of it from the top of a newly constructed lookout tower which still stands today.

The lookout tower at what is today Upper Seletar Reservoir Park.

The area which later was developed into a park and the expanded reservoir, was opened by HRH Princess Alexandra in August 1969. The work to expand of the capacity reservoir which traces it origins back to the 1920s, resulted in an increase in its capacity from a previous expansion in 1940 by some 35 times, giving the northern fringe of Singapore’s Central Catchment Reserve a large and very picturesque body of water. This was made possible by the erection of a larger dam across the Seletar valley which required a part of Mandai Road to be diverted. The reservoir started its life as a temporary source of water supply which was developed out of an abandoned effort in the 1920s to build a third impounding reservoir on the island. Work on that was halted when it became apparent that it was feasible to draw on the abundant sources of water across the Straits in Southern Johor with pipelines to feed much-needed resource integrated into the construction of the Causeway. It was in 1940 that the reservoir was made a permanent one having its capacity expanded to feed the island’s growing population.

The expansion was made possible by constructing a larger dam across the Seletar valley.

The expansion of the reservoir in 1969 increased the capacity of Seletar Reservoir by some 35 times.

The work which commenced in 1967 to expand the reservoir, also allowed its position on the northern fringe the Central Catchment Reserve to be exploited to provide a recreational area around it with access to large parts of it possible by road. Besides the park with its now iconic tower that was constructed, plans were also drawn up to use an area to the north-west of the reservoir for a zoological gardens what is today the highly acclaimed Singapore Zoo.

Upper Seletar Reservoir seen here along Mandai Road is one of the more scenic areas of Singapore takes on a magical glow during the sunset.

The setting of the sun over Upper Seletar Reservoir.

It is for the climbs up the lookout tower that I would look forward most to on my early visits to the area, my first visit being in October 1969 on the evidence of photographs that I have taken of my sister and me. It wasn’t however only the tower that occupied me during my visits to the park – the slope of the dam was a constant source of delight with the grasshoppers that seemed to thrive in the grass that lined the slope. The slope – or rather the road that ran down from the top of the dam where the tower is along the slop of the dam was also where I once, in the foolishness of youth, responded to a dare to go down the road on my roller-skates. Finding myself gaining momentum after setting off, it was probably fortunate that I decided not to go through with the dare and managed to pull out of it by turning into a turn-off not far from the top of the slope. Sliding across the rough surface as I lost my balance in turning off at speed, I was bloodied and bruised with abrasions that ran down the entire length of my right leg and a little embarrassed, but quite thankful that I had decided not to go through with the dare.

Adventures of a five-year-old around the lookout tower at Seletar Reservoir (now Upper Seletar Reservoir) Park not long after it first opened in 1969.

The road down from the top of the dam. I made an attempt to roller-skate down the road (which then did not have the gate we now see across it). I managed to turn at a turn-off to the car park (seen just beyond the gate).

The park today is one that I still frequent, not so much for the tower which does still somehow fascinate me, but for the escape it offers from the concrete world that I find myself now surrounded by. And, in those escapes that I take, it is comforting to find that in a Singapore where the relentless winds of change have rendered many places of my childhood for which I had a fondness for unrecognisable, the area beneath the changes it has seen in the four decades that have passed, is a face from that world that I still am able to see.





Strolls through less familiar streets of old

13 01 2012

Another wonderful place where I have been able to take a step back into the old world is the city of Ipoh in the northern Malaysian state of Perak. It is a place that I sometimes stop by on my drives up north, one that I may have had less of a connection with than perhaps Georgetown, Kuala Lumpur or Malacca, but one that I always enjoy a visit to. Ipoh does draw a crowd of visitors during the holiday season in Singapore, with many having relations or friends there, some having orginated from a city that has somewhat of a reputation for being a “sleepy town”. It isn’t hard to see why Ipoh acquired the reputation as even on the busiest of days, other than at the crowded eating places and streets crowded with cars, the five-foot-ways of the many pre-war shop houses that dominate the old town are eerily silent, with many of the shop units shuttered shut. However, sleepy as the city that rose from the wealth gained from tin deposits found in the limestone hills that surround it may seem, there is a lot more than the famous food and a break from the fast paced world that Ipoh has to offer.

The pouring rain brings an otherwise sleepy side lane in Ipoh to life - Ipoh has acquired a reputation for being a sleepy town.

A durian seller - another signs of life along the otherwise silent five-foot way.

Despite redevelopment in some areas of Ipoh, there is still a wealth of pre-war architecture to admire in the sleepy town.

One is the Art Deco styled former Ruby Theatre.

Arriving in the pouring rain one afternoon in late December, there wasn’t much I could do except head for Jalan Yau Tet Shin for lunch. The food that the city and its residents are very proud of does without a doubt, make an excellent starting point for any visitor to the city (although finding a parking space can prove a challenge). It is at Jalan Yau Tet Shin that two Steamed Chicken and Beansprout outlets that Ipoh’s residents swear by (read more about this in a previous post) can be found. The location of the two, Onn Kee (安記) and an old Ipoh favourite Lou Wong (老黄) also makes an excellent staging point to make a raid on the confectionery shops the city is equally famous for and to discover some of the old world I am always fond of strolling through – something that as a result of the rain I wasn’t really able to, choosing to wait out the afternoon’s deluge indulging myself in the offerings of another of Ipoh’s food institutions – Funny Mountain Beancurd, a stone’s throw from where I had lunch. The beancurd was exceptionally smooth but all too sweet for me and institution or not, I prefer the ones I am used to back home.

Ipoh's succulent and crunchy beansprouts - a great dish to accompany its equally famous steamed chicken.

There wasn't much to do but wait the afternoon's deluge out.

That is unless one has a toy windmill.

Funny Mountain Beancurd.

Perhaps with the sugar rush the beancurd gave me, the energy had to be expanded in doing some walking and not having previously explored another old part of town down Jalan Raja Ekram close to where another of Ipoh’s food institutions, Foh San (富山) can be found at “Dim Sum Kai” or Dim Sum Street – Jalan Leong Sin Nam. Foh San serves another of the city’s culinary must-trys, Dim Sum, which I did have the opportunity to try this time around. Having also previously tasted the Dim Sum across the street at Ming Court (明阁), I wasn’t quite convinced that what I did taste this time around was better than that.

Dim Sum at Foh San - another Ipoh favourite.

Another well known Chicken restaurant - Cowan Street along Jalan Raja Ekram.

The area around is one where there are several old streets and architectural gems hidden away. On a side street running parallel to Jalan Raja Ekram, Jalan Lau Ek Ching, is one which was a delight to discover. The street has apparently, had quite a bit of history – with a somewhat sleazy past based on news articles that I’ve found in the online newspaper archives of the National Library in Singapore. The is one report that caught my attention, with the explosions in Kuala Lumpur being very much in the news this week – that of a bomb that ripped through a bus that had been parked overnight on a side lane off the street during the Emergency in 1965. What drew me to the street was a row of gorgeous double storey pre-war buildings at the north end which I spotted from Jalan Raja Ekram, which, sadly, would have seen much better times. The signs for the houses are good though, with the obvious attempts at restoration and reuse by new and seemingly trendy businesses already having moved into a few of the units. On the other side of this row is another equally gorgeous row, one that is elevated. Each has a flight of stairs lined by curved balustrades leading up through stone pillars to a small compound.

A row of pre-war houses along Jalan Lau Ek Ching which is receiving a new lease of life.

The inside of one of one of the houses under renovation - a pub and a bridal studio are among the new tenants of the row of houses.

Another look at the exterior.

A staircase leading to another row of houses along Jalan Lau Ek Ching.

A row of pillars along the same row of houses.

Running parallel to Jalan Lau Ek Ching is Jalan Raja Musa Aziz (the former Anderson Road). At the junction of this street with Jalan Sultan Abdul Jalil (Clarke Street), is another beautiful sight to behold – that of the Art Deco building that once housed the Ruby Theatre, which again, is one that would have seen much better times. The building was completed in 1938 and leased to a Kuala Lumpur based cinema magnate Mr Ong Ee Lim who housed the Ruby in it. The building was also known as the Lau Ek Ching Building on the evidence of an old postcard, having been owned by the Ipoh gentleman who gave his name to the street I had just walked through, Mr Lau Ek Ching. Based on a report in an issue of the Straits Times dated 2 January 1938, I learnt that the building was built at a cost of $100,000 and designed by an Ipoh based Architect firm Boutcher and Company. It had a seating capacity of 800 at its opening and had its ground floor used as a covered carpark. Today it houses a furniture shop, looking somewhat forlorn and out-of-place even with much of the old that still surrounds it. There was much more to see than the two hours I had permitted. The two hours did feel like too short a time of course, but it wasn’t something that I minded. It did mean that I would have another reason to return to a city that is more old world than new and one which allows me to get away to into a world in which I am always able to find a lot more comfort than the one that I have found myself growing into.

An old postcard of The Ruby in 1960.

The former Ruby today.

A building belonging to the True Jesus Church.

A back lane in Ipoh I found myself wandering through.

The yellow world that Ipoh seems to be.


More of Ipoh
Posts from a previous visit

A stroll around the streets of Old Ipoh

Ipoh’s grand old railway station

The church of St. John the Divine

The flavours of Ipoh

Ipoh’s Spooner Road






Seeking an old world over the New Year

5 01 2012

Strange as it may seem, I found myself wandering around streets some 350 kilometres away during the lead up to the New Year, thinking for a while that I was in a Singapore that I had my wonderful childhood in. The streets of Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur where I was has been a source of fascination for me since my first visit there as a child of six and it has also become, along with other parts of the country, a place where I often search for that world – the Singapore of my childhood that is now lost to me. The streets of Kuala Lumpur today and those of the Singapore of yesterday are undeniably two very different worlds – worlds far apart in many ways. Both cities have seen dramatic changes in four decades since my first visit and are today hardly recognisable from the cities they had emerged from. There is however one key difference in how either city have gone through their respective transformations. Where with Singapore, much of what made Singapore, Singapore, has now been lost – replaced in many cases by the cold hard stare of glass, steel and concrete, there is still the buzz of daily life that can be discovered nestled in between the towering edifices of modern Kuala Lumpur.

There are places I remember ... that resemble this. A back lane off the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

An area that I take particular joy in wandering around has become known as the city’s Chinatown – centred on Petaling Street or Jalan Petaling, once a must-go destination on my almost annual visits to the city to savour some of its culinary offerings. The street market it is well known for has unfortunately seen the inevitable invasion of stalls that provide a wider apppeal to a tourist than the local, but there is still in and around the area a world much like that old world we have left behind in Singapore to stumble upon. It is in the five-foot ways and narrow alleyways off the main street that this older world I seek is tucked away. One, alleyway which runs parallel to Petaling Street off Madras Lane (or Jalan Sultan) is home to what must be a well known wet market, teeming in the early hours of daylight with many from the area and beyond, in search for the day’s supply of fresh produce. I first came to know of the market on a trip to Kuala Lumpur that coicided with my very first journey out of the now forgotten Tanjong Pagar Railway Station some two decades ago – and it nice to see that it still is set in that wet, slippery and less than pleasant smelling passageway that leads to what must seem like a reward at the end of it.

The wet market at Madras Lane.

A butcher's assistant at the wet market.

What lies at the end of the wet market is a cluster of food stalls – ones that have a reputation for being amongst the best in a city where sumptous street fare is never hard to find. Despite the less than pleasant demeanour with which customers of some of the stalls are served, the cluster never fails to draw a steady stream of hungry customers in the mornings and the very popular Chee Cheong Fun, Yong Tau Foo and Assam Laksa usually sells out by the time one arrives for a late lunch.

Madras Lane is also famous for its street fare.

The early morning crowd at the Yong Tau Foo stall.

Enjoying a bowl of noodles at Madras Lane.

After a bowl of the irresistable Assam Laksa and a glass of warm soya bean milk the morning I found myself there, there was still time to discover what else Madras Lane had to offer. The five-foot ways and crowded back lanes was certainly a joy to wander through -a hole-in-the-wall shop with colourful magazines strung up for sale, as well as a shop lot where one could have an offending mole removed caught my eye as did a back lane strewn with pushcarts awaiting use to serve the evening’s dining crowd, a back lane barber, a sidewalk fortune-teller, and a cobbler waiting patiently for his next customer.

A bowl of Assam Laksa I had to have.

A sidewalk fortune teller along Jalan Sultan.

A hole-in-the-wall shop.

A five-foot way along Jalan Sultan.

Have that offending mole removed.

I suppose I would have spent the entire day immersing myself in that old world – but that unfortunately wasn’t that Singapore that I had sought, although it did in many ways remind me of it. It was time then to transport myself to the new world – first for lunch and for a look at another area I was familiar with from my early visits to the city – the Bukit Bintang area which has also seen tremendous change. And as darkness descended on the city for the last time in the old year, it was time to embrace the new – in a way that even an old world cannot escape from – with a blast of colours in the sky, but perhaps in a gentler and quieter way than it would have been if I had stayed at home. With that there is a realisation that much of the old ways will soon be forgotten … but there is that hope that the city I found myself in, would cling tightly on to those little reminders of its past which would allow me many more opportunities to seek the familiarity and comfort of the old world that I can no longer find in the place I grew up in.

A somewhat quieter welcome to 2012 than I would have expected in Singapore - fireworks over Bandar Utama in Malaysia.

The finale after the 10 minute dispay over Bandar Utama.





Sembawang beyond the slumber

29 03 2011

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another view of the bunker's entrance.

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

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

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

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

Other buildings in the area which have some form of conservation status include Old Admiralty House which has been gazetted as a National Monument in 2002, and the former Sembawang Fire Station which was given conservation status in 2007, both of which we did not visit due to physical limitations. Old Admiralty House on Old Nelson Road (just across Canberra Road from Sembawang MRT Station), a two-storey brick bungalow housed the Commodore Superintendent of the Dockyard and later was used as was the official residence of the Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief, Far East Station from 1958 up until 1971, when it was named Admiralty House, was constructed in 1939. In the lead up to the fall of Singapore, it saw use as the strategic planning headquarters of the British forces. Except for the period during the Japanese Occupation, the house was the official residence of the Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief, Far East Station, until the withdrawal of the British military from Singapore. The URA also provides some information on the former Sembawang Fire Station (which is now within the grounds of Sembawang Shipyard): “built in the 1930s, this two-storey concrete building is designed in a simplified Art Deco-Modern style and has an elegantly proportioned fire-hose tower. The building is a local landmark for both the Sembawang area and the Shipyard”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Seeking out the Taj Mahal in the city built on tin

18 01 2011

Fresh from an excursion to Kuala Lumpur (KL), I found myself some two hundred kilometres north of KL in a rather quiet city that features some wonderful pieces of architecture from a time when it was thrived on the harvest it made from the ground. The city, Ipoh, the administrative capital of the northern Malaysian State of Perak, lies in a beautiful setting surrounded by limestone hills in the Kinta Valley of Perak, an area rich in tin, and it was from the tin mines around the area that provided much of the wealth that city was built on. In KL, motivated by a desire to learn more about the development of the Malayan Railway fed by nostalgia fueled by the knowledge that the shift of the KTM station to Woodlands by the time the second half of 2011 arrives (which would be that after more than a century of running through Singapore, the Malayan Railway would cease to operate across the island), I sought out two of Arthur Benison Hubback’s railway inspired masterpieces, the Railway Administration Building, and the grand old Railway Station, both built during the turn of the 20th Century and feature the Moorish inspired designs that give old KL a distinct flavour. I found myself doing the same in Ipoh, where another two of Hubback’s great architectural works, the Railway Station and the Town Hall proudly stood.

Arriving early at the Ipoh tree in the main square, two of Hubback's masterpieces that Ipoh is blessed with in the area around the Square were shrouded in morning's mist.

But, the mist soon lifted to reveal the magnificent dome dominated structure of Ipoh's grand railway station.

Although plans for a grand station in Ipoh were put forward in the first decade of the 20th Century and work was supposed to commence in the early part of the next decade and completed by 1914, it was only in 1914 that construction on a station “worthy of the town” started (in 1914). That coincided with the Great War of 1914 to 1918 and due to a shortage of funds and material due to the War, it was only fully completed in 1917 with the completion of the Station Hotel which opened on 1 May 1917. The station building which is fondly referred to as the “Taj Mahal of Ipoh” by Ipoh residents for its magnificent dome dominated structure. Plans for it were described by the Straits Times in 1915 as “the palatial station and hotel, somewhat after the plan of the one in Kuala Lumpur”, and by the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser in 1914 as “in many ways an improvement on the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station structure, which had so far remained supreme as one of the finest railway stations in the East”. Built in concrete and steel, due to what was described as a “lack of any good building stone in the Federated Malay States” on the site of a hospital, the Neo-Classical styled station was to provide a “front door worthy of Ipoh’s status as the second city in the F.M.S.” and form part of a “fine entry” into the town along with the Town Hall and Town Square facing the station.

The Neo-Classical styled A. B. Hubback designed station building features a main dome as well as minor domes and was said to be a station building that were among the most magnificent buildings East of the Suez. The building is also referred to as the

The station building stands across the main square from another of A. B. Hubback's works, the Town Hall. Both buildings together with the square were meant as buildings that would be fitting of Ipoh's status of the FMS' second city and to provide a "fine entry" into the city.

A corridor at the front of the magnificent building.

Wondering around the imposing façade of the whitewashed station in the shadows of the towering cloud shrouded tops of the limestones hills in the background that early New Year’s eve morning, I couldn’t help but be held in awe of the 183 metre arched loggia that dominates the front of the station’s ground level as I stood below it, giving me a sense of how grand the station would have been in the setting of the early 20th Century Ipoh. Although resembling its sister station in KL in many ways, the station in Ipoh is much more refreshing in many ways with a lighter and a happier feel to it, being smaller than the one in KL. It certainly is worth a visit to and is one where (for the time being at least), you will discover the quaint old Station Hotel that now occupies most of the upper floors of the building that once had also held accommodation (a total of seventeen bedrooms) for the station’s own officials, a throw back to the days of old when it would have been thought fashionable for the well heeled traveller to put up at a station’s hotel. Ipoh had in fact been one of three FMSR stations that had been afforded this luxury, with the one at KL and at Tanjong Pagar being the other two, and is the only station currently in Malaysia (and Singapore) that still has a hotel functioning at the station.

The platform side of the station building.

The station and the main platform ... a modern styled awning has been erected over what is now the electrified tracks of the KL to Ipoh line.

An alternative view of the awning over the platforms.

A peek at the ticket counter through a window on the platform.

Part of the 183 metre long loggia at the front of the station.

The part of the station leading up to the hotel entrance.

The entrance to what is currently the last of the three station hotels to remain in operation in Malaysia and Singapore.

Stepping into an old world elevator, the shaft of which staircase wound around, reminiscent of the old world (and somewhat dingy) hotels (and sometimes youth hostels) that I usually found myself putting up in travelling on a budget in Europe during my days as a student, was a sign of what was to come. In it, I was transported up to the lobby at the top and into a world that somehow seemed frozen from a time when perhaps railway travel would have been thought to be not just fashionable, but romantic. The ceramic tiled floor that I stepped out on certainly exuded that old world feel, as did the wooden counter of the hotel’s reception and the armchairs that sat opposite the counter. The lobby led to a wide and expansive balcony to which some of the rooms opened to that offered a splendid view of the city’s main square, the front of the station building itself and the magnificent Town Hall. In one corner of the long balcony, guests were having breakfast in a wonderful old style setting and at the other end, more old style armchairs and coffee tables were arranged as if to convince the visitor of the old world charm of the hotel.

The old world elevator that transports you into a world that time has left behind.

The ceramic floor tiles, the reception counter and the old armchairs that greeted me at the elevator landing certainly belonged to a forgotten time when perhaps the romance of train travel was very much alive.

The balcony on the top level of the station hotel ... also serves as a wonderful place to have breakfast at.

More views of the top level.

The hotel did seem a little run down, seeing much grander days when its clientele would have boasted of the who’s who of the British administration, when it could perhaps have rivaled the likes of Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the E&O Hotel in Georgetown, but nonetheless still has the charm to pull a few romantics (like me) in – and on another day, I might have been tempted to check in there and then but I had a date with the new year in KL. Stepping down into the mezzanine level, it was apparent that the world that I had visited had yet another dimension to it, and for a while, it looked as if I had stepped into a correctional facility with the cell like rooms arranged around a large corridor or lobby. But taking time to adjust to my surroundings and the soft light that streamed into the area from the skylights above, the level certainly had a charm of its own, with painted cemented floors reminding me of some of the old seaside hotels by the sea that I had stayed in previously. It certainly was a world apart, and I suspect that the rooms which were facing the two sides of the station building would be well furnished as well as open up to some nice views, particularly those that are on the reverse side of the station which face the pretty limestone hills beyond Ipoh. Looking at the layout of the rooms and the relatively low ceiling on the mezzanine, I believe that the area which I had walked down into might have formerly been the units which has served as the rooms which accommodated the servants or “boys” for whom, as described by the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, in an article dated 16 May 1914, the provision of “would be a great advantage”.

The stairway back in time.

The different world on the mezzanine level ...

A fan seen against the awning which must have been added later.

Ventilation louvres ...

Rooms that look like cells ....

An old window that opens to an air well ....

Wooden panelling ...

After a short, but satisfying visit to the station and the hotel, it was now time to discover more, and to indulge in the wonderful mouthwatering offerings that Ipoh has in store … about that I had previously posted, but before that, I had another date with a delightful old lady that had not been in the pink of health, but has obtained a new lease of life just up Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road) on which I should be writing another post on.





A quick taste of Ipoh

5 01 2011

No, this isn’t a blog about food. It is about the many experiences that I have in life, one of which involve some of the sinful (and mostly not sinful) pleasures of life, which includes food! Fresh from a date with a concubine on New Year’s Eve, and with the knowledge (yes, knowledge can sometimes be dangerous) that there is certainly more to Ipoh than rather nice old buildings and narrow streets – Ipoh is to many, better known for its food, I decided to indulge a little in some of the culinary treats that Ipoh offers.

Ipoh is well known as a glutton's paradise. Among its famous dishes is Sar Hor Fun found at stalls at either 73 or 75 Leech Street (Jalan Bandar Timah).

So, armed with the recommendations of a long time Ipoh resident whom I had met in Singapore, but with a little more than a day and the desire not to put additional strain on my tight fitting garments caused by the fast expanding waistline stemming from the overindulgences over the festive season, I decided to have a quick sampling what he had recommended. First stop was at one of the must-eat-at steamed chicken places, Onn Kee (安記) diagonally across on Jalan Yau Tet Shin from an old Ipoh favourite Lou Wong (老黄) (Onn Kee or Ong Kee as it is sometimes spelt also has a restaurant next door to Lou Wong).

The crowd at Lou Wong on Jalan Yau Tet Shin - popular with the locals for its chicken and bean sprouts.

Ong Kee (of Onn Kee) offers an alternative.

I arrived at about 7 in the evening, and a healthy crowd had already occupied the tables laid outside the restaurant (the crowd across at Lou Wong was even larger!). Ordering the standard fare, it promptly was served with what seemed like the standard practice in Ipoh, a generous amount of brown liquid which qualifies as sauce. Having made a pit stop at Lou Wong previously when I found the chicken to be smooth and tender, with maybe too generous a dash of sodium chloride in the sauce, I decided to take the recommendation of my friend to make a comparison. Onn Kee’s chicken as I bit into it felt a bit too tough and chewy and certainly not the tender smooth variety of steamed chicken I am used to in Singapore. The plus point, compared to Lou Wong’s was that it did taste a little less salty, and maybe had a richer taste. Where Onn Kee stands out is probably with its bean sprouts (known locally as “nga choy” in Cantonese or “tauge” – pronounced tow-gay in Malay) which was crunchier and tastier than its rival’s from across the street.

Ipoh is well known for its steamed chicken ... (the one from Onn Kee is shown here) ...

and ... which begs to be accompanied by crunchy bean sprouts ...

The chicken crew at Onn Kee ...

Of course we know that there is more to life, or rather food, in Ipoh than chicken and bean sprouts, and the Sar Hor Fun that I have previously mentioned. Ipoh has also a reptutation of having the best Dim Sum (not the variety with the word “Dollies” appended to it that MRT commuters in Singapore had a serving of very recently), on the Malayan Peninsula. Another long time favourite (when it comes to these bite sized treats in Ipoh) is the Foh San (富山) which is now housed in the mother of all dim sum restaurants along a street that has become so much associated with dim sum that it is know locally as “Dim Sum Kai” or Dim Sum Street, Jalan Leong Sin Nam. On the recommendation of my Ipoh insider, I headed instead across the street to Ming Court (明阁), where true to the reputation my friend had staked on his recommendation, dish after dish of some of the best dim sum I have had was served, washed down with a pot of tea. Of course I can’t say if it was the best, especially not having the opportunity to taste what Foh San has to offer.

Ming Court (as with Foh San) offers tasty treats of dim sum in Ipoh.

The aftermath ...

Walking around Ipoh does in fact give a sense of it being a glutton’s paradise. Another favourite among many Malaysians are its biscuit shops and salt baked chicken (chicken baked in rock salt). There is also an interesting concept which I guess comes from the fondness the locals have for eating chicken curry with bread and with sweet bread, to be found – Chicken in a Bun! Chicken curry wrapped in aluminium foil, in this case is baked in a sweet dough, allowing the finished product to be taken away and eaten almost anywhere, without the need for additional packaging. All that was certainly too much to handle in a matter of 24 hours – so I did the next best thing … take all that away to allow me to continue with my culinary exploration of Ipoh at my next destination, Kuala Lumpur.

Food - including biscuit shops are everywhere in Ipoh!

(Curry) Chicken in a bun another of Ipoh's famed delights.

What's inside the bun.

Another is Salt Baked Chicken - chicken baked slowly with rock salt - shops are found all over Central Ipoh





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

3 01 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Town Hall.

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

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

Another view of the High Court.

The Straits Trading Building (1907).

The Chartered Bank Building (1924).

The Mercantile Bank Building (1931).

The Perak Hydro Building (1930s).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tricycle outside a house in Concubine Lane.

More signs of life.

Windows on Concubine Lane.

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

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

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

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

A view from the window of the coffee shop.

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

The Sar Hor Fun stall at Kong Heng.





Journeys through Tanjong Pagar: The Station at Bukit Timah

27 09 2010

My earliest impressions of the Malayan Railway were formed perhaps not so much by the station at Tanjong Pagar, but by the two black steel truss railway bridges that seem to give the area of Bukit Timah that they cross its character. I often passed under the bridges as a child, seated in the backseat of my father’s car on the many trips he took us on to and from the Causeway and to Jurong or to the Teck Whye area to visit a friend of my mother’s who ran an orchid farm there. Each time I passed under, my attention would be drawn to the heavy steel trusses, sometimes hoping that I could see a train traversing one of them. The bridges would serve as a landmark for me on the long road journeys from the Causeway. The stretch from the Causeway down Woodlands and Bukit Timah Roads always seemed endless, particularly having had been seated in the backseat for a large portion of the journey along the winding roads north of the Causeway, taking us past the monosodium glutamate processing ponds close to the Causeway and the Metal Box factory, then Bukit Panjang Circus and Bukit Gombak, and further on past Boys Town before the first of the two black bridges came into view. Seeing the first meant that the long and boring part of the journey would be coming to its end and I could look forward to seeing the Hume Factory, Ford Factory, and Magnolia Dairies on the hill, before the Bukit Timah Fire Station came into sight and with it, the huge Green Spot bottle at the entrance of the Amoy Canning Factory that I would never fail to look out for.

One of the two steel truss bridges that give the Bukit Timah area its distinct character.

Passing under the bridges and catching an occasional glimpse of a train on one of them would also bring with it a desire to make a train journey of my own, something that I only managed to do later in life. When I did finally embark on that very first train journey and on my subsequent journeys, I did find that there was a lot more than the bridges that captivated me. The train rides always provided an opportunity to catch a glimpse of a Singapore that would otherwise remain hidden to me, with the route that the train takes meandering through parts of Singapore that could very well be in another world. Two spots came to my attention on that first ride, having been provided with a good glimpse of from the unscheduled stops that the train made prior to reaching the Causeway. The two were a short distance apart, on either side of the first of the railway bridges that cross Bukit Timah Road, the first being at the Bukit Timah Station just before the bridge, a station that I had hitherto not known about, and the second just after the bridge – at the stretch just behind the Yeo Hiap Seng factory.

A southbound train crossing the bridge near the site of the former Yeo Hiap Seng factory.

The trains to and from Tanjong Pagar take a route through some untouched parts of Singapore.

Having caught a good look at Bukit Timah Station that very first time in the dim illumination it was provided with, I was fascinated, seeking to find out more about it when I got back to Singapore. From what I could see of it, it had looked to me like one of the little rural stations that might have depicted in one of the Ladybird books that I had spent my early years reading, one that could be one used to model a miniature station for one of those model train sets that I had often looked longingly at in the toy department of Robinson’s. It was in future train journeys in the daylight that I would get a better glimpse of it, being something that I would never tire looking out for on all my journeys by train.

Bukit Timah Station is a little known about station in Singapore, off Bukit Timah Road.

Bukit Timah Station could pass off for one of the little stations on a model train set.

The station I was to learn, was built in 1932 as part of a realignment of the original railway line which had run from Woodlands down to its terminal at Tank Road via Newton Circus. The realignment or “deviation” as it was referred to then, was carried out at considerable expense at the end of the 1920s, partly motivated by the need to elevate certain portions of the track as the old line had been prone to being overrun by the frequent floods that afflicted the low lying Bukit Timah corridor the line ran through, and at the same time allowing at the the number of what were considered to be dangerous level crossings to be minimised. The realignment also allowed the construction of a brand new and much grander terminal at Tanjong Pagar, one that could be considered as befitting of its status as the southern terminal of the railway line, and more importantly, as the gateway from the colonies in the Malayan Peninsula to Europe and also to the Far East by sea. Bukit Timah Station was also strategically placed to serve what was to prove to be a very lucrative service – the transport of racehorses to and from the racing circuits on the peninsula and the island, being a stone’s throw from the old Turf Club at Bukit Timah. The deviation of 1932 also gave us the two wonderful bridges that were to lend themselves towards giving the area its distinct flavour.

The distinctive truss bridges over Bukit Timah Road and Bukit Timah Station were completed in 1932 as part of a deviation to the rail line that cost a considerable sum of money.

The road out to Bukit Timah Road from the station ... a route that would have been taken by the many racehorses that were transported on the train to Singapore, bound for the old Turf Club.

A old signboard pointing towards Bukit Timah Station from the main road.

A train passing Bukit Timah Station.

The stretch after crossing the bridge over Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads I had a good view of  through not what one might have called a stop, but a series of stops and starts. That gave me the opportunity to see what had occupied the narrow strip of land wedged between what was the railway track, the old Yeo Hiap Seng factory on one side and Rifle Range Road on the other. The strip was then, packed with some of the last remaining squatters that had survived in the 1990s, something I hadn’t been aware of until I had peered out of the window on that first train journey, right into what were the illuminated dwellings of the squatters which had seemed to be only an arm’s length from me. Much of Singapore had by then been cleared of squatters, most having by the time the 1990s arrived, been resettled in the high rise public housing that marks most of the landscape of what had once been rural Singapore. It was then difficult to evict the squatters with the then poor relations between Singapore and the Malaysian government that had effectively owned the corridor of land that the trains run through.

The bend in the tracks where the Yeo Hiap Seng factory was.

The narrow strips of land along the tracks in the area were occupied by the wooden shacks of squatters living on land belonging to the Malayan Railway.

Corrugated zinc sheets and wooden shacks were once a common sight along much of the railway line.

Another view of the tracks around Rifle Range Road which were once lined with the dwellings of squatters living on the Railway land.

A train carrying bricks passing a popular shortcut from Jalan Anak Bukit to Rifle Range Road, one that would have been used by squatters living in the area.

The shortcut from Jalan Anak Bukit over the tracks to Rifle Range Road.

Looking north from Rifle Range Road ... the train takes a path through much of a Singapore that would otherwise remain unseen.

Looking back, I suppose one of the things that came from having a Malaysian railway line operating through Singapore was that it allowed large tracts of the land along the railway and much of the areas around to remain undeveloped and retain the rustic charm that has been lost in much of our island through the rapid modernisation that has overtaken us since our independence, much of which I guess would soon be consigned to the past with the recent agreement on the land swap and the redevelopment of the Railway land. There isn’t much time left I guess for us to savour the rustic charm of the Railway land and some of the buildings that lay around it. I would certainly like to take a last train journey, to take all this in for one last time and to say a fond farewell to what will soon be lost.


This post is also featured on asia! through asian eyes, an online and mobile platform for Asian bloggers and other writers. asia! offers a place to get a feel for what ordinary Asians are thinking and saying and doing providing a glimpse of the Asia that lies beyond the news headlines.





Crossing the river in the days of old

1 06 2010

It was at the start of the 1970s that my parents first took us on a holiday to the East Coast of Peninsula Malaysia. They decided to do it more out of curiosity for what the East Coast had to offer, having already made frequent journeys to the likes of Malacca, Port Dickson, Kuala Lumpur, and the mountain resorts to the north of Kuala Lumpur, on the West Coast. It was on this maiden trip that, deciding to venture a little further than Kuantan, we discovered the peace and tranquility that the East Coast offered in a little place just north of the Pahang-Terengganu border, Kemaman, to which we would subsequently visit annually. We would stay in a quiet motel, set in a coconut grove, with a magnificent bay with a expansive sandy white beach, 5 miles north of Kemaman. This provided us with access to coconuts which we could pluck right off the tree, the wonderful beach that was washed by the surf of the South China Sea, fresh oysters which we could pry off the rocks that stood at the corner of the bay with a screwdriver, deliciously fresh seafood that the wooden shacks that were restaurants in the nearby town served up, and my favourite keropok ikan (fish crackers) that was made in the villages nearby and sold at the market in town. All this made that long and perhaps arduous road journey that we have to take to get there, well worth it.

Wiseman's Ferry across the Hawkesbury River, at the town named after the ferry, north of Sydney, is the oldest ferry crossing being operated in Australia, is a cable operated barge similar to the crossing that was at Rompin (source: Wikipedia).

The journey by road via Kuantan was often an unpredictable one, not so much for the North-East monsoons which bring the eastern states of the Peninsula torrents of rain in November and December making stretches of road impassable due to flooding (months which we avoided making the trip), but due to the fact that crossing some of the rivers was done in the good old way. That was a time when the infrastructure that now makes it a joy to drive to many parts of the Peninsula, hadn’t quite been established yet. Attempts to build the much needed bridges often stalled due to the lack of funds and it was common to see little or no progress in some of the road construction activity that we passed year after year. By the time we made our journey, two of the rivers along the route did not have bridges constructed over them yet, despite plans for many years to do so. The first, at Endau, was across quite a wide river, Sungei Endau, and the second, a narrower crossing at Rompin, across Sungei Rompin.

Wiseman's Ferry across the Hawkesbury River. Built as a link to the Hunter Valley from Sydney, it commenced operations in 1829 (still capture off a video taken in 2002).

The crossings had to be made then by a vehicle ferry, which was a rectangular steel barge on which vehicles could be driven on to via a ramp. Cars and smaller vehicles often shared the deck with the timber laden lorries that were a common sight on the East Coast roads. What it meant was, at the crossings, we had to wait in a queue of vehicles for the next available ferry. On a good day, the wait would usually be not longer than half an hour, and on a day when traffic was particularly heavy, or when the ferry broke down, the wait could stretch into hours, with a five or six hour wait not uncommon in the case of the latter. When this did happen, the wooden shacks that lined the road leading up to the ferry ramp, which served as makeshift refreshment outlets, would do a roaring trade, with the occupants of the vehicles filling the tables and chairs that would have normally been occupied mostly by houseflies.

The river vehicle ferries across the Endau and Rompin Rivers, as with Wiseman's Ferry shown here, always involved a wait, which could sometimes add a few hours to the drive up to Kuantan (still capture off a video taken in 2002).

The crossings which always seemed like an adventure to us, were not without danger, and it was common to see a barge listing dangerously from the weight of an incorrectly placed timber lorry. This brings to mind an incident which happened on Sungei Kerian in northern Malaysia sometime around the time we started making the annual trip, in which a similar ferry capsized, taking a schoolbus and several vehicles that it was carrying with it into the river, killing 33 people. The Endau crossing seemed particularly dangerous, not so much for the distance across the choppy waters, but for the very strong currents. The currents also meant that the tug-boat which towed the barge from the side had often to move on a heading upstream at an angle to the ramp on the other side of the river, to avoid us being carried downstream. The other crossing at Rompin, somehow seemed to provide less excitement. There, the crossing was much narrower and the river more passive, allowing a cable system to be used to pull the ferry across the river. What this meant was the wait would usually be longer, as only one barge could be used to ferry vehicles to and fro, even with the lower volume of traffic that used that crossing.

It wasn’t too long ago, sometime in 2002, on a drive around the Hawkesbury Region, north of Sydney, when I chanced upon a similar crossing to the one at Rompin, which brought memories of the ones we made on the East Coast of Malaysia, at Wiseman’s Ferry. The crossing which was built by a former convict Solomon Wiseman in 1829 to provide a link to Sydney from the fertile Hunter Valley, is the oldest ferry crossing still in operation in Australia, and provides a link across the picturesque Hawkesbury River. The charming old cable operated ferry is now operated by the state government and was certainly well worth the detour off the highway to get on to it. For me, it served to remind me of my own adventures on the ferry crossings on the East Coast, which said goodbye to us sometime around 1975/1976, when the bridges that had long threatened to render them obsolete, were finally built.








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