The north-south trail of destruction

4 01 2017

We seemed to have said too many goodbyes in the year we have just left behind; goodbyes to those who coloured the world, goodbyes to political certainty, and in Singapore, goodbyes- once again – to too many bits of what makes our city-state unique. The year we have just welcomed, brings the end for many of the places we have said goodbye to, either through their complete erasure or through alteration. Two, Rochor Centre and the Ellison Building, both of which are affected by the construction of the North-South expressway due to commence this year, have received more than a fair share of attention.  The former will  be completely demolished as it stands in the way of exit and entry points of the southern end of the expressway, while the latter, a conserved structure, will lose some of its original façade. While there is an intention to have its lost face rebuilt, the news was met with quite a fair bit of displeasure, prompting an effort to have the extent of the façade affected minimised.

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The “Rainbow Flats”, or Rochor Centre, will be demolished this year for the construction of the North-South expressway.

The expressway will be built overground at its northern end. The impact this will have may not in the loss of buildings or parts of them, but the much altered vistas the parts the viaduct is being built over would have. One area in which this would be painfully obvious will be in Sembawang Road between Mandai Avenue and Khatib Camp. Taking a path through a landscape recalling a countryside we have largely discarded, the road and the pleasing vistas it has long provided, will surely be missed once the expressway is built. My acquaintance with the road goes back to the early 1970s when as a schoolboy, I would find myself bused down the road, to support my school’s football team playing in the north zone primary schools finals at Sembawang School. The road’s charm hasn’t changed very much since its more rural days, despite its subsequent widening and the building of Yishun New Town and Khatib Camp just down the road.

A beautiful stretch of Sembawang Road near its 11th milestone that recalls a rural past will soon have a very different and much more urban feel to it.

A beautiful stretch of Sembawang Road – near its 11th milestone, recalls a rural past. A viaduct for the North-South expressway, will give it a very different and a much more urban feel.

The road is set against a landscape that recalls a huge rubber and pineapple plantation. The former plantation's Assistant Manager's residence - is still seen atop one of the landscape's high points.

The road is set against a charming landscape that recalls its days as part of the huge Nee Soon plantation. The former plantation’s Assistant Manager’s residence – still stands prominently atop one of the areas’s high points.

An area affected by the expressway that has already lost its charm is Toa Payoh Rise. I often enjoyed walks along the quiet and well shaded tree-lined road in more youthful days when the air of calm it provided was supplemented by the chorus of its tree lizards. The then much narrower road, an access point to Toa Payoh Hospital, has seen much of its magic taken away. Associated also with institutions for the visually handicapped, it has since been given a completely different feel with its upgrade into a main access path in and out of Toa Payoh and the building of a Circle Line MRT station, Caldecott. Several structures of the past can still be found such as the former Marymount Convent complex and four low-rise blocks of flats that served as quarters for hospital staff. The former convent buildings and two of the four blocks of flats are  however set to disappear just so our world could be kept moving.

Flats at Toa Payoh Rise - two will be demolished for the North-South expressway to be built.

Flats at Toa Payoh Rise – two will be demolished for the North-South expressway to be built.

The Marymount Convent complex.

The Marymount Convent complex.

At the other end of Thomson Road, there are also two reminders of more youthful times that are also set to make a partial disappearance. Here, the expressway’s tunnel will burrow through soil once intended to provide eternal rest – that of the former New or Bukit Timah Cemetery – already disturbed by the exhumation of the cemetery in the 1970s. The tunnel will also swallow up several units from a delightful collection of old houses at Kampong Java and Halifax Roads. Built around the 1930s as municipal quarters, these are of two designs and have very much been a feature of the area. The area was where I attended kindergarten (at Cambridge Road) and also primary school (at Essex Road). While the demolition would involve a few units close to the side of the Central Expressway, it will have the impact of further reducing the area’s already eroded charm.

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Former municipal quarters at Kampong Java Road that will make way for the expressway.

Former Municipal Quarters at Halifax Road, several of which will also fall victim to the North South expressway.

Former municipal quarters at Halifax Road, several of which will also fall victim to the North South expressway.

Two other major road transport projects – involving the MRT – also adds to the destruction brought on by the need to keep our world moving. One, the final phase of the Circle Line, has seen part of the Singapore Polytechnic first campus demolished and the levelling of what had been left of the very historic Mount Palmer. Another big change the project will bring is to the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The line will run under the former station with an MRT station, Cantonment, built under its platforms. This will see the well-loved National Monument closed to the public for a period of nine years during which time it will acquire an entirely different feel. One of the MRT station exits will bring commuters up to the former station’s platforms and into the former station building, which will by the time it reopens, may feature a mix of retail and food and beverage outlets.

A last Christmas at Tanjong Pagar, before a lengthy closure during which it will be changed forever.

A last Christmas at Tanjong Pagar, before a lengthy closure during which it will be changed forever.

Not everything however, is going due to the need to keep us mobile, as is the case for what is left of Old Kallang Airport Estate or Dakota Crescent – as it is now commonly referred to. The well-loved neighbourhood is a a last remnant of an estate built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) – the predecessor to the HDB, that features the first attempts at high-rise public housing blocks. Built at the end of the 1950s, parts of the estate has already been lost to redevelopment. The part of it that is still left features four block designs arranged around two spacious courtyards and a playground introduced in the 1970s. Some of the blocks were designed to also include units intended for commercial and artisanal use – a feature of the SIT estates of the era. A group is currently seeking to have parts of the estate, which offers an insight into the public housing programme of the pre-HDB era, conserved, supported by the Member of Parliament for the area.

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Dakota at the crossroads.

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Will the estate and the last of the dove (playgrounds), like many of the SIT estates of the past, be discarded?


See also:

Some places that will be affected by the North-South Expressway

Some places that are affected by the Circle Line’s Final Phase

More Winds of Change:






Retracing the “Ice Ball” Trail

22 01 2014
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo who takes us on a walk back 50 years in time on the ice-ball trail to his kampung at Jalan Hock Chye

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Your whole life flashes in front of you when you experience a near death moment. Memories come flashing back. Memories of all the good times and bad – and times that one had forgotten or chose to forget come back vividly. Having been in that position almost two years ago there is one strange memory that strangely stood out in my mind and often came back to me after that.

It takes me back fifty or more years ago when I was in primary school at the then Holy Innocents School (which later became Montfort School). Those were the days when the Ponggol Bus Company or aka the “Yellow Bus” Company serviced routes in the Serangoon and Ponggol District. My generation of users of this service would remember the wooden louver windows these buses had in those early days!

Well, the average daily “pocket money” for school kids our age then was 30 cents. 10 cents for bus fare to and from school, 10 cents for a plate of Char Kuay Teow or Mee Siam etc, 5 cents for a drink and 5 cents for Kachang Puteh or sweets.

On certain days after our morning school sessions when the urge for a “cool” after-school treat was high a group of us, living close to each other, would decide that if we walked home we could use the 5 cents saved to buy the refreshing “ice ball” – shaved ice shaped into a ball (like a snowball) and sweeten with various coloured sweeteners and a dash of evaporated milk. This was handmade and looking back was pretty unhygienic but it was a special treat for most of us to quench our thirst.

Well the walk from our school, which was next to the Church of the Nativity, back to our homes in Jalan Hock Chye, off Tampines Road, covered a distance of about a mile. We were usually hot, sweaty and thirsty by the time we reach the “kaka” (Muslim Indian) shop that sold iceballs. However walking the last few yards home sucking on an iceball was simply “heavenly” then.

I was in Singapore recently and a strange urge came over me – I wanted to walk the iceball trail again! (I did not think it was the progression of a second childhood coming on).

Well on 10th August 2012 I and my wife caught a bus from Upper Thompson Road to Houggang Central to do the trail. Sadly my old school is no more there but the Church of the Nativity is still there and that was my starting point. With camera in hand I recaptured memories of various roads and lorongs that were landmarks then. Fifty years has seen lots of improvement on what was then on a whole a rural environment. Some lanes like St Joseph’s Lane have gone but it was nostalgic to recap what was and still is present. Very few landmarks of old remain. I knew we were getting close to our destination on approaching Lim Ah Pin Road. By then we were thirsty and welcomed a cool soya bean drink at a shop opposite Lim Ah Pin Road before heading for Kovan MRT station. This station used to be the terminus for the STC bus company that ran services into town and other parts of the island in those days.

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Sadly too Jalan Hock Chye is no more around, being replaced by Hougang Avenue 1. However other landmarks are still there to pinpoint precisely where we used to get our iceballs. The Kaka shop used to be directly in front of the start of Jalan Teliti which is still there; and where my old home used to be is where Block 230 now stands and diagonally across there was a small lane that is now the present Jalan Hock Chye.

Well fifty years on I am glad I still could do the ice ball trail again and to all the old Monfortians who did the walk with me then – life was very simple then but very much cherished. However no ice ball for me at the end of the walk this time – had to settle for an ice kachang as a substitute!

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Words and images by Edmund Arozoo, who now resides in Australia and whom I had the pleasure to meet last December.






The swastika at the tenth mile

9 07 2013

One very distinct memory from a childhood of many wonderful moments to remember is of the red swastika at Somapah Village. The village was one I had many encounters with in the late 1960s and very early 1970s, stopping by or passing through it on the many journeys we made to Mata Ikan at the other end of Somapah Road where a favourite holdiay destination for my family – the Mata Ikan Government Holiday Bungalows was located.

A photograph of the old Red Swastika School along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School's website).

The red swastika along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School’s website).

The swastika belonged to the Red Swastika School, just down the road from the main part of the village. It adorned the simple single storey zinc-roofed  school building, rising above it over the entrance and never failed to catch my attention from my vantage in the back seat of the car – a symbol I would always associate with the now lost village. The memories I do have of the village and the school are largely contained in a post I had put up at the end of 2010 on the village:  Memories of the lost world that was Somapah Village. What motivated me to touch on this again is a few old photographs of the school, apparently taken during a school sports day in the 1970s, sent by a reader Mr. Alvin Lee, which follows.

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The school traces its history back to the founding of the Wan Tzu School by the World Red Swastika Society at the village in 1951, built to serve residents of the rural community in the Changi 10th Mile area where Somapah Village was located and provided free education to them. Sometime in the 1950s, the name of the school was changed to the Red Swastika School – a name now well respected for its academic achievements.  Its enrollment was to grow quickly, from 300 at its starting, it had by the end of its first decade a population of some 1000 students who were accommodated in its 12 classrooms over two sessions. With the days of the village coming to an end in the 1980s the school moved to new premises in Bedok North Avenue 3 in 1981 where it still operates today.

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The star of Chong Pang Village

3 07 2013

A landmark that would have been hard to miss on a northern journey to the end of Sembawang Road or to Sembawang Shipyard was the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, which occupied a corner of Chong Pang Village. The corner which the church occupied, was where a fork in the road gave one a choice of taking a left to Canberra Road or a right to continue along Sembawang Road. For many in the pre-1971 days of the Naval Base, the church would have marked the area which led to Canberra Gate – an entrance along the southern boundary of the huge base which had stretched along the northern coast of Singapore from a line which ran northeast from Canberra Gate all the way west close to the Causeway to what is today the western end of Woodlands Waterfront.

The Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Chong Pang Village (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro).

The Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Chong Pang Village (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro).

The church building, small by today’s standards (it would have had a seating capacity of maybe a hundred or two) and surrounded by a iron picket fence typical of fences of old, had a wonderful homely feel to it. The building was completed in 1953 through the efforts of its then parish priest, Fr. Albert Fortier. It  was blessed on 13 December 1953 by the visiting New Dehli based Apostolic Internuncio to Malaya (and India), Monsignor Martin Lucas who had a busy Sunday – he also blessed the Church of  the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Highland Road earlier on the same day.

The back of the church building (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro). The church was blessed on 13 December 1953.

The back of the church building seen in 1989 (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro). The church was blessed on 13 December 1953.

The parish’s history does go back a little further than the building that stood at the start of Canberra Road. Based on information on the church’s website, the origins of the parish goes back to the beginnings of the Naval Base when priests based at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes sought to extend their ministry to the small community of Catholics from 1926 – probably involved in the construction of the base which was fully completed only in 1938.  Services were to first be held in a makeshift building on the grounds of the Naval Base School before the parish was established by Fr. Dominic Vendargon at a building at Jalan Kedai (this would be the area across Canberra Road from where Sembawang Mart is today) which had been used  as a school during the Japanese Occupation in August 1949. It was Fr. Vendargon’s successor, Fr. Fortier, who had to put up a new church building after the former school was deemed unsafe in 1952 and the simple building was built at a cost of some $53,000. A statue of Christ which stood in the grounds just outside the church, another landmark, was added in February 1956.

A view of the church from the main road in 1989 (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro).

A view of the church from the main road in 1989 (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro). The statue of Christ can be seen to the right.

The church building was one which I did visit from time to time in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, it did serve a large community of Tamil and Malayalee      parishioners, many of whom worked at Sembawang Shipyard which had taken over the Naval Dockyard in 1968. With the days of the village coming to a close in 1989 – it was being cleared to make way for the new public housing estate of Sembawang, the church (its land was also acquired) had to seek new premises. Its then parish priest, Fr. Louis Amiotte announced the construction of a new church at Yishun Street 22, designed in it was said to be in the shape of Noah’s Ark, which was completed in 1992. The new church building, built at the cost of $4 million, was blessed on 30 May 1992 by then Archbishop Gregory Yong.

The new church building at Yishun Street 22 - shaped like Noah's Ark, was completed in 1992.

The new church building at Yishun Street 22 – shaped like Noah’s Ark, was completed in 1992.

Much has changed in the area since the village disappeared at the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s. The new housing estate started coming up at the end of the 1990s and very little traces of the once bustling village are left. Much of the land on and around which the church had stood – except for the expanded road, is now vacant, awaiting future development which, at least based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Master Plan 2008, will see sports and recreation facilities coming up.

The corner where the church stood as seen today. Part of the grounds would be on what would today be the widened Sembawang Road. The corner at Sembawang Avenue and Sembawang Road is slated to be used for future development of sports and recreation facilities.

The corner where the church stood as seen today. Part of the grounds would be on what would today be the widened Sembawang Road. The corner at Sembawang Avenue and Sembawang Road is slated to be used for future development of sports and recreation facilities.

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978





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.





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 new face to a once familiar place

24 11 2011

Some might remember a time when Punggol Point lay at the end of a somewhat long and winding road – the old Punggol Road that meandered through a countryside that we have since lost. The road, which started at its junction with Upper Serangoon Road where the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary served as a landmark, took one past some five miles of the many tracks of Punggol, villages and farms with attap and zinc roofed houses and a lot of which I don’t quite remember. What I did remember was the unmistakeable pong that hung in the air – one that was fed by the numerous poultry and pig farms that had thrived in the area, and perhaps the evening’s chorus of squeals – that of pigs calling for their dinner.

The beach at Punggol Point - now cleaned up and freed of the boatels and boats that added colour to the landscape.

The end of the road offered a lot to those who did brave the journey. There was first and foremost the cluster of seafood restaurants that drew many with the reward of reputedly some of the best and freshest seafood dishes on the menu in which service always seemed to begin with the customary basin in which one found the table’s utensils and teacups, cleansed in the water that the basin held. There was also the weekend crowd that came: those armed with rods to fish at the jetty, or board a boat to attempt to reel in a bigger catch offshore – which invariably included a lot of Ikan Sembilang; and those who sought to satisfy a need for speed planing over the water on waterskis – either off Punggol Point or at nearby Coney Island. For some, Punggol Point also offered a quiet escape from the fast moving concrete world that was taking over much of the rest of Singapore – the fishing village it hosted by the sea adding to the rustic charm that the area already held.

Punggol Point before the big change that took place at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s (source: http://picas.nhb.gov.sg).

The last I saw of that Punggol Point and of Punggol Road was at a time when I was still in my youth, and with the distractions of a decade when I made the transition from being a curious child to adulthood, a decade that probably saw the most significant change in Singapore’s rural landscape – the 1980s, the clearing of Punggol as it was at the end of the 1980s seemed to have passed me by. Some business at Punggol Point like the seafood restaurants and boatels did have an extended lease of life, but they too went in the early 1990s, and Punggol, as with much of Singapore, was to be changed forever.

Looking west today towards what was the area close to the mouth of Sungei Punggol.

I was to discover how much has changed as I made my way over the weekend for the first time in over two decades to Punggol Point for the official opening of Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Park. The journey was there of course now made a lot easier by the Tampines Expressway (TPE) which runs below an elevated stretch of Punggol Road, no longer was there a need to make one’s way over Upper Serangoon Road to the start of that long and narrow Punggol Road. There wasn’t much that I had expected to see that would have reminded me of the old Punggol Road and Punggol Point, as I tirelessly drove along what is now a wide dual carriageway, flanked not by attap and zince roofed houses and greenery, but by the new HDB estate that has risen out of the ashes of the old Punggol. A surprise awaited at the last stretch of the road – the dual carriageway merged, after a wide junction into a stretch on which for a moment, gave me a feeling that I was on my way to that old Punggol Point. Flanked by a line of trees which provided cover to the short but winding stretch of road, it did look as if I was heading down the old Punggol Road – which this stretch was a part of, kept almost as it might have been as a heritage road. Althought the ‘Tracks’ of Punggol Road were gone, there is still a couple of familar streets – one Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue brings with it memories I have of campfires and walks by a narrow beach that led to the mouth of Sungei Punggol. It is after the next familiar name, Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue, that the realisation sinks in that it is not to that old Punggol Point that I was heading to, as the break in the cover of trees reveals the brand new world which will attempt to retain some of that rustic charm that the old Punggol Point had been known for.

The tree lined stretch of road that leads to the end - reminiscent of the Punggol Road of the days gone by.

Past the Outward Bound School, I soon arrived at the end of the road. Desperate to see what Punggol Point has become, I quickly make my way up a viewing deck, which I was to find out later, shaped like a ship. The viewing deck offered a wonderful panorama of the Straits of Johor and Pasir Gudang beyond the jetty which it overlooked, where stakes used to moor boats and the boats tied to them would have once greeted the eye. On both sides, a beach that looked a lot cleaner than the one I remembered ran up and down the coastline, cleared of the boatels and the stilted houses of a Malay kampung that once stood close to the water’s edge. The beach, and perhaps the jetty are perhaps what can connect us with the past, and a reminder in the form of a National Heritage Board sign of an unfortunate and tragic episode in our history that took place on the beach – the Sook Ching Massacre.

The jetty today.

The lookout that I stepped on to, is part of what is a 1.2 km promenade and park, the Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Park, which is one of three thematic zones of the $16.7 million 4.9 km long Punggol Promenade project undertaken by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) that was officially opened by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on 20 Nov 2011. This is a component of its Parks and Waterbodies and Identities Plans which aims to open up and introduce new recreational activities and amenities to coastal areas, and also preserve the laid-back and village-like appeal that the areas are known for. Punggol Promenade will link up two recreational clusters at Punggol Point and Punggol East, as well as link to the park connectors along Punggol Reservoir and Serangoon Reservoir. This will form a continuous 17 km loop around the north-eastern part of Singapore. The two other thematic zones are the 1.3 km Riverside Walk which anchors a growing recreational cluster at Punggol East which opened in March this year and a 2.5 km Nature Walk, scheduled to be completed next year.

Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Walk was officially opened by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on 20 Nov 2011.

Ms Penny Low, Member of Parliament for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, speaking at the opening.

Location Plan of Punggol Promenade and Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Park. © Urban Redevelopment Authority. All rights reserved.

A dragon who's eyes were painted by DPM Teo used in a dragon dance performance at the opening.

Dragon dance performance by Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC residents.

The Punggol Point Park offers a lot more besides the viewing deck and the beach, there are also the calm of Lily Ponds, a 81 metre by 10 metre Event Plaza and a Children’s Playground to draw families to enjoy the newly opened park. There is certainly more to look forward to – a reserve site has been released by the URA for sale by tender for food and beverage development – which will perhaps see the return of seafood to the area, and a horse-riding school will also soon open. The Promenade at Punggol Point Walk will feature both a 3 metre wide cycling track for use by cyclists and roller skaters and a parallel 3 metre wide footpath constructed of simulated timber. A sustainable approach is in fact adopted in the selection of materials for use in the project that also involves the use of permeable Tegula pavers on hard scaped area which eliminate the need for drainage systems, the use of bio-swales to filter surface run-offs and the use of Laterite earth.

The Lily Pond.

Besides the mobile ice-cream vendor - there is now a lot more to attract those with children to visit the park and promenade.

The Children's Playground. © Urban Redevelopment Authority. All rights reserved.

Footpaths and cycling paths at the waterfront promenade. © Urban Redevelopment Authority. All rights reserved.

I must say that although I didn’t really find much of the old Punggol Point that I might have hoped for, I am grateful to have taken the opportunity to visit the area. The drive through the heritage road did help trigger a few memories that I have stored away, as did my walk around the new park. While much of the old world rustic charm has inevitably been lost, there is still some of that charm that is left to draw vistors to the area and to also draw me back not just for the chance to escape from the urban world, but also for the opportunity it offers me to rediscover and reconnect with a part of Singapore I have might have almost forgotten about.





A Kranji Heritage Trail

10 11 2011

The name Kranji brings to mind many things. Kranji War Memorial is one, named after an area in the far north of the island that is also associated with the beginnings of the railway through Singapore at the start of the twentieth century. There is a lot more to Kranji than that – Kranji Dam is another landmark associated with the area – part of a scheme launched in the early 1970s to increase Singapore’s fresh water resources and probably the first dam to be constructed across a river in Singapore for that purpose. The greater Kranji area – which the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA) covers, does of course offer a lot more than that. Besides the area being one of the last areas accessible to the public in Singapore least affected by the rapid development of post independent Singapore where one can cycle or drive along country roads that once dominated much of rural Singapore, and the area which is now associated with re-establishing some level of self-sufficiency in food, the area is now the subject of the latest National Heritage Board (NHB) supported initiative to work with the private sector to develop the heritage industry – The Kranji Heritage Trail.

The Kranji Heritage Trail includes 14 markers which will each have a QR Code to access information on the spot via a smart phone.

The trail, developed under the NHB’s HI2P programme, and is the proud effort of the KCA with sponsorship by NTUC Fairprice Foundation, was launched at Yew Tee Point yesterday. The launch, which was graced by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, was led by the President of KCA, Mrs Ivy Singh-Lim, KCA Patron Howard Shaw, Mr Seah Kian Peng – the CEO of NTUC Fairprice, and Mr Alvin Tan – Director, NHB.

Present at the launch were Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, President of KCA Mrs Ivy Singh-Lim, KCA Patron Howard Shaw, Mr Seah Kian Peng - the CEO of NTUC Fairprice, and Mr Alvin Tan - Director, NHB.

The Kranji Heritage Trail intends to bridge past and present through a history of early farming in the area, besides the developing interest in historical sites such as the first Japanese invasion sites on the north-western shoreline in the dark days of February 1942 that led to the eventual fall of Singapore. The trail will comprise 14 trail markers, each of which will incorporate a QR Code – the first of Singapore’s heritage trails to do so. This will enable instant access to information relating to the sites with a QR Code reader installed on any smart-phone.

The former Kranji Level Crossing is among the 14 landmarks on the Heritage Trail.

The landmarks that would feature in the Kranji Heritage Trail are:

  1. Kranji War Memorial
  2. WWII First Landing Site of the Japanese
  3. Kranji Army Barracks
  4. Kranji Railway Train Crossing
  5. Neo Tiew
  6. Bollywood Veggies
  7. Hay Dairies
  8. Hausmann Marketing Aquarium
  9. Jurong Frog Farm
  10. Kok Fah Technology
  11. Lian Wah Hang Quail & Poultry Farm
  12. Nye Phoe
  13. Sungei Buloh
  14. Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle

The Pier, the house of the late Howard Cashin is on a World War II landing site where the Japanese invasion force suffered a number of casualties.

The Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is built around the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln which the Tan family has operated since 1965 is another of the 14 sites.

For those interested in exploring the trail this weekend, complimentary shuttle bus services and guided tours will be offered on 12 and 13 November 2011. Members of the public can register for tickets at the Information Counter of Yew Tee Point. Pick up would be at Yew Tee Point at 9am and 1pm on both days.





A lost world in Lim Chu Kang

19 07 2011

Deep within a world that is now missing from much of Singapore, lies a reminder how life might once have been; one of carefree days spent by the sea, and of quiet nights gazing at the stars. It is a world that doesn’t exist anymore and one that many would find hard to go back to.

A reminder of carefree days in the sun, accompanied by the sand and the sea … a world that doesn’t exist in Singapore anymore?

This reminder, takes the form of the former residence of the late Howard Edmund Cashin, a prominent lawyer and sportsman in his time. Perched on a pier like structure that stretches over mud flats from an area of the mangrove dominated the north-western shores of Singapore, The Pier, as Mr. Cashin referred to the residence, was one that also boasted of an expansive garden from which one can be serenaded by the songs of the sea. Left vacant following Mr. Cashin’s passing in 2009, “The Pier” reminds me of gentler days, of times when the escapes to or taking up residence in seemingly far-flung and idyllic coastal locations across our island seemed the fashion. And, with most of these places since been lost to land reclamation, these are moments and places that we can never again see.

A lost world that reminds us of a Singapore that doesn’t exist anymore can be found in Lim Chu Kang.

The lost road to the lost world …

“The Pier” had served Mr Cashin’s for close to 50 years. Based on newspaper articles and oral history interviews, I understand that the Cashins, Howard and his wife Gillian, moved in to “The Pier” in the 1960s. It was however well before that that the pier had been constructed, the pier itself having been put up in 1906 by Mr Cashin’s father as a means to move rubber from his vast Cashin estate in Lim Chu Kang to Kranji from where it could be transported by road. The house we see on it, was largely added in the 1920s.

The Pier was the home of Mr and Mrs Howard Cashin and was built over a pier which fell to the invading 5th Division of the Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of February 1942.

The Pier in the 1920s (a scan from The Singapore House, 1819-1942).

The Pier in the 1920s (a scan from The Singapore House, 1819-1942).

“The Pier” is significant from a historical perspective, having been on of the sites where the Japanese Imperial Army’s 5th Division first landed on the north-western coastline in the dark days of early February 1942 that was to lead to the eventual fall of Singapore. The site was where the Japanese invaders out-fought the Australian 22nd Brigade. This despite the Australians defending valiantly and having inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese. The battle, fought over the night of the 8th of February, was to see some 360 Australian troops losing their lives in the relatively small area of land around “The Pier”. The Japanese were to erect a war shrine at the site. This was something that Mr. Cashin had difficulty removing after the war as it was not easy to find workmen willing to demolish the shrine. Mr. Cashin, in an interview, said that the stone from the pedestal the shrine had stood on was used to construct the road to the house that Mr. Cashin was to add before he moved in in the 1960s.

A view of The Pier from the expansive gardens.

A view of the gardens.

One of the things I was to learn from N. Sivasothi or Siva, who had been kind enough to ask me along for a recce he was conducting of the mangroves close to “The Pier” (see my previous post), was that the then Sultan of Johor (the late father of the current Sultan) was a frequent visitor. His Highness would drop in on the Cashins for tea, coming over by boat across the Straits of Johor; the first of his visits was at low tide and this required the assistance of a huge man in the Sultan’s entourage to carry His Highness on his shoulders over the mud of the tidal flats. This, a reminder of times when borders did not exist, both in the physical sense of the word as well as in the minds of many who lived on either side of the Causeway.

The Pier.

A look through the gates ….

With that gentle world now lost, “The Pier” stands as one of the few reminders left of that world. Now vacant, the ownership of “The Pier” has been passed on to the Singapore Land Authority and thankfully, it is not one we would soon be saying goodbye to as often is the case with many abandoned homes that eventually, would fall into decay, the initial word was that it could see use as a field station. I know at least that it will be there to return to. And, while it may not be a return to a place that I once knew, it will be to a place from which I can be transported back to places and times forgotten that would otherwise exist only in the dreams I have of yesterday.

A peek through the grilles at the entrance to the house …

Signs of abandonment.

Windows.

A peek inside … what would have been the kitchen and dining room.

The living room.

The balcony.

View of the mangrove dominated coastline.

A stariway to the sea … probably one that the Sultan of Johor would have used to ascend from his boat on his visits to the Cashins.


Update on status of the house (source: URA Draft Master Plan 2013 exhibition in Nov/Dec 2013): The Pier (Draft Master Plan 2013)






The forgotten shores

18 07 2011

Lying in the (somewhat) remote and relatively undeveloped north-western corner of Singapore is a world that we seem to have forgotten. It is a world that I had in my younger days, visited on occasion, distracted in my forays into what had seemed like the ends of the earth by the purpose with which I had visited it, first as a boy scout and later as a National Serviceman. It probably has been close to two decades since I last visited the area, and when an opportunity arose to revisit the area over the weekend – the man instrumental in the efforts to cleanup some of the neglected coastal areas in Singapore, N. Sivasothi of the National University of Singapore (NUS), was doing a recce of mangroves in the area which will be the focus of his efforts come August and September of this year and extended an invitation to me to join him, I decided to have a look. I was glad I did, finding that the area was as I had imagined it to be – a lost world that seems far from the Singapore that I have grown accustomed to.

A forgotten world lies along the north-western shores of Singapore.

The forgotten north-western shores of Singapore.

Much of the coastal region around the northwest of Singapore are still dominated by the mangroves that had extended around much of the island’s original coastline, a coastline that lies forgotten and somewhat neglected over the years. Access to the mangroves of the area are through roads that lead to the north-west of which the main thoroughfare is Lim Chu Kand Road which ends at an area that seems as remote as one can get to in Singapore, one that is now dominated by a large Police Coast Guard base and a pontoon jetty that is used by fishermen. One of the mangroves that was surveyed was the one that is adjacent to this jetty, accessible over the mud flats that reach out to sea just by the jetty, which is well known for it’s giant mud mounds built by the mud lobster. This will be the focus of clean-up efforts on the 6th of August this year, something that Siva does for Singapore around every National Day. The extent of the litter that has washed up and become entrapped within the mangroves was clear just from having a look around and it is wonderful to know that there are efforts to clear the area of all that.

A mangrove forest at the Lim Chu Kang area. Much of Singapore's north-western coastline is still dominated by mangroves that had lined most of Singapore's original coastline.

Mud flats adjacent to the pontoon jetty at Lim Chu Kang end.

Saturday's recce through the Lim Chu Kang mangrove.

Litter washed ashore and entrapped by the mangroves was evident all around. The area will be the focus of clean-up efforts on 6th August 2011.

Another area that was surveyed was a little further to the east, accessible through Lim Chu Kang Lane 9, close to where the late Howard Cashin had his incredible retreat by the mangroves, a building that is built on stilts over the sea and is still there. This I would devote another post to. Adjacent to the plot of land where Cashin built the retreat, runs a stream through the mangroves that would be the focus of attention on International Coastal Cleanup Day on 17th September 2011. Here, the extent of the fouling by debris is again evident, with much of it washed up the stream together with renovation debris that has apparently been dumped there. Although much of the efforts involve volunteers amongst the staff and students at NUS, others are also welcomed to join in. For the effort on 6th August, sign-ups for volunteers can be made at this link.

A view of the mangroves off Lim Chu Kang Lane 9.

Siva in his element ... the mangroves that are very close to his heart.

Siva and Jessica Ker surveying the stream off Lim Chu Kang Lane 9.

Being in what is an area that is abundant with greenery, I was able to also spend a little time to have a look around me and take in some of the joys that the greenery brings. The area is rich in butterflies and my brief visit allowed me to watch a few dance around the abundant flora of the area. I certainly am thankful to Siva for opening a door for me to an area that I have forgotten about and one that I would now certainly have more encounters with.

A male Painted Jezebel.

A female Leopard Lacewing.

A Plain Palm Dart.

A weaver bird's nest.





The last level crossing in Singapore

19 05 2011

Minutes before arriving at Woodlands on the 30th of June, the last of the Malayan Railway trains to cut across our island would have passed what would be the last operational level crossing in Singapore. It is probably appropriate that the crossing, one of two gated crossings left (the other being at Gombak Drive), is the last that will see a train pass through, being close to the terminal point of the original Singapore-Kranji Railway which commenced operations in 1903. The original line had featured numerous level crossings, particularly in the busy city centre and in planning the Railway Deviation of 1932, a stated objective had been the elimination of the level crossings in the city which proved not just to be costly to maintain, but also contributed to significant congestion on the city roads as well as being dangerous. What we are left with today are five operational manned level crossings, three of which are closed by a barrier rather than a gate. The crossings are at Gombak Drive, Choa Chu Kang Road (the widest), Stagmont Ring Road, Sungei Kadut Avenue and Kranji Road.

A train crossing Kranji Road. The Kranji level crossing would be the last one to operate on the 30th of June 2011.

The Singapore-Kranji Railway started operations on New Year’s day of 1903 after some two years and eight months of construction with the opening of the line from Bukit Timah to the original terminal near Tank Road at the foot of Fort Canning Hill.

The departure of the first train from Singapore Station is described by the 2nd January 1903 edition of the Straits Times: “Yesterday morning at 6 o’clock sharp, the first train drew up at the platform awaiting those daring spirits who had decided to test the line, in an initial run as far as Bukit Timah. There were two or three Europeans and a similar number of Chinese babas as passengers … A few minutes after 6 o’clock, one of the few railway officials present waved his hand to the driver as a signal to start, the passengers scrambled in, the engine tootled once or twice, and then slowly steamed out of the station passing a large notice board which proclaimed in English, Malay and Tamil that the station was ‘Singapore’. Thus the first public run on the Singapore-Kranji Railway has commenced”.

Based on the same article, the published fares for the passage were 56 cents on 1st Class, 35 cents on 2nd, and 21 cents on 3rd. The full line was completed some four months later with the opening of the final section from Bukit Timah to Kranji on the 10th of April 1903. The Straits Times on the 11th of April 1903 describes the passage of the first “through train”: “the first through train left ‘Singapore’ station at Tank Road punctually at 7 o’clock yesterday morning for ‘Woodlands’, at the Johore end of Singapore, a little run of fifteen miles. The train consisted of seven carriages and was well filled with a very cosmopolitan lot of passengers”. The article also interestingly describes the scene along the line from Bukit Timah onwards towards Woodlands: “the line runs through some of the prettiest country in the island and the lover of tropical scenery will be delighted with the trip”. The return fare was reported to be $1.80 and the passage across the Straits of Johor on a steam driven ferry cost 10 cents.

The original Singapore-Kranji railway had run to the ‘Singapore’ Station at the foot of Fort Canning Hill at Tank Road before being moved to Tank Road proper due to the extension of the line to Pasir Panjang. Operations started on New Year’s Day 1903 to Bukit Timah and was extended to Kranji on 10 April 1903 when the rest of the line was completed.

That was some 108 years ago, when the railway made its first tentative journeys across the island. And now, after a little more than a century, the last will leave, not tentatively, but possibly in a determined manner, no longer wanted by a country it has served so well, but where land has become too valuable to allow the old railway to weave its way through it. And so, in the cover of the night, perhaps not silently, but with a large groan, the railway will take its leave with the last train as it passes the last crossing to be swallowed up by the CIQ complex where the trains will after the last on the 30th of June, terminate at. No longer will we as train passengers see that scenery that was in 1903 described as “the prettiest country in the island”, a scenery that still, despite the appearance of civilisation, is still one of the prettiest in the country, and no longer will I get to see what has held my fascination of the railway since my earliest encounters with it in Singapore – a train crossing a road.

When the Kranji level crossing sees the back of the last train on the 30th of June 2011, we would be minutes from saying goodbye to 108 years of the railway passing through Singapore.

A Vanishing Scene: The Kranji Level Crossing


To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.

 


 

Party on the last train:

 

 

If anyone is keen to join Clarissa Tan, Notabilia, and myself on the last train into Singapore (not the last train which will be the northbound train from Tanjong Pagar), do indicate your interest by leaving a comment at Notabilia’s post on the subject.

 






Memories of the lost world that was Somapah Village

16 12 2010

I have but vague memories of a world that once lay at the gateway to my playground by the sea. It was a world that now seems so distant in time and in space, and one that for me comes back in bits and pieces. That was the world that was once the bustling Somapah Village, located close to the 10th milestone of Changi Road, a place that was a major settlement in the area, deserving a mention in the RAF Information Booklet for New Arrivals for its Veterinary Clinic from which dog licenses could be obtained: “Travelling from Changi, Somapah Road is the first turning left after the overhead pedestrian crossing in Suicide Village – an off-white bungalow almost at the end of the road”.

Somapah Village was one of the main settlements in the area and served as the gateway to some of the villages that lay along the old coastline (source: National Archives).

My acquaintance with the village goes back to the early days of Singapore’s independence, when my parents who were in the civil service, made regular use of the Government holiday bungalows near Mata Ikan Village. Somapah Village was where Somapah Road met Upper Changi Road and served as a gateway to the coastal villages that lay to the south-east of it, including Mata Ikan, which was located a mile or so down the road at the coastal end of Somapah Road. Passing through the part of the village which had always seemed a hive of activity in the mornings was also the trigger for me to look out for the red swastika that would be perched on the top of a building, having developed a fascination for the symbol from the many encounters I had with the Nazis that had to do less with my overactive imagination than with the nightly dose of the exploits of Vic Morrow’s character Sgt. Saunders on Combat! The red swastika belonged to the Red Swastika School that was in a quiet part of the village along Somapah Road on the right as we made our way towards Mata Ikan, and was the left facing symbol used by the Taoist Red Swastika Society as opposed to the right facing swastika used by the Nazis, not that I noticed it then.

A photograph of the old Red Swastika School along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School's website).

Besides the memories of the red swastika, I do have some further memories of Somapah, two of which relate to visit to the GP’s clinic which was on the right side of the village along Somapah Road (facing south). What I can recollect was that it was perched on a raised area from the road, a unit in a row of shophouses. Both visits made to the GP were certainly painful ones, the first involved my mother who needed the GP’s attention to remove a fish hook which had lodged into the flesh around her knee as she climbed over a sea wall at Mata Ikan. The second was made for my benefit, one in which I sought relief from a painful encounter with the zipper of my shorts.

A scene from Somapah Village in 1986 - I believe the GP's clinic was in the row of shops in the background (source: National Archives).

It wasn’t so much the GP’s clinic that my earliest memories of the village were connected with. Those were of the market, which I believe was on the side opposite the shops where the GP’s clinic was located. It was where (the bungalows we holidayed at were self-catering and featured a well equipped kitchen), my mother would on every other day during our stays, shop for supplies of fresh produce and fish. We could of course rely on the mobile vendors: vegetables, fish, meat and eggs were sold from the back of a pick-up or a van that went from house to house, but the market always offered a much larger assortment. The market was where I had my earliest memories of seeing Sting Rays up close, displayed on the table of a fishmonger close to the entrance of the market. Being the inquisitive child that I was, the market was always a great source of fascination for me.

A barber's shop at Somapah Village (source: National Archives).

On the subject of mobile vendors, one that I was particularly fond of seeing was the bread vendor, who made an appearance every morning with his colourful display of bread dangling from a rack of sorts that was mounted on the back of a motorcycle. His arrival meant I could get my day’s supplies of the sweet grated coconut buns that I never could wait to sink my teeth into. Another one on two wheels that I would look out for would have been the milkman, with a milk can mounted at the back of his bicycle from which he would dispense milk in glass bottles. It is only very recently that I realised that the milk actually came from a dairy farm that was in Somapah Village itself – learning of the farm’s existence from an article on the ThinkQuest website.

A Chinese Temple (source: National Archives).

There are a few who remember the area having lived in the village, including a few readers who were kind enough to share their memories of Somapah on my post on Mata Ikan. One was a Mr Koh who described where the GP’s clinic I mentioned was: “The GP’s clinic was indeed situated close to a row of shophouses. It was located up a small slope called Jalan Somapah Timor. It was opened in 1962. Opposite the clinic and across the road was an open field with some cattle for diary purpose. Beside the clinic was a PAP kindergaten, my first school. Opposite it was a small police post. The market was an open-air market. Some of the vendors had shops with wooden top for their goods; the rest would place their items on ground sheets”. Another who goes by the moniker “sotong” added “my first sch was the PAP kindergarten too. i used to stayed in a house at jalan somapah timor, where the airport was separated from my place by a major road..still rem often seeing and hearing plane flying over my house. Also rem the days accompanying my mum to the market near my kumpung, eating chicken rice in this shop for i think 50cents per pack. but unfortunately i can’t rem exactly where my old house use to be located”.

Chinese Medicine Shop at Somapah Village (source: National Archives).

These days, there isn’t really much to remind us of that Somapah. The village and all around it has all but disappeared and only a few remnants of the area are left. Most of Somapah Road has gone, just a little maybe 50 metre stretch left of it located somewhere close to where Singapore Expo is off Changi South Avenue 1, relegated to a road that serves as a driveway to a car park. Across the road there are a few reminders of the time from which my experiences of Somapah Village were connected with including some of the roads such as Jalan Tiga Ratus and the buildings that were the former Changkat Changi Primary School that rose on a small hill along the Changi Road (now Upper Changi Road) next to Jalan Tiga Ratus which was built in the later half of the 1960s.

Across the road at Jalan Tiga Ratus, the buildings that were the Changkat Changi Secondary School (1st Photo) and Changkat Changi Primary School (2nd and 3rd Photo) built in the latter part of the 1960s still stand.

Across the road a big void greets the observer where once a bustling Somapah Road and Village had stood.

A gate stands across where Somapah Road had once run towards the coastal village of Mata Ikan.

What used to be Somapah Road near the junction with Upper Changi Road.

Where a village once stood ... now an empty field.


The little bit of Somapah Road that's left ... relegated to an access road for a car park.

A dead end for Somapah Road.

The view of the empty grassland from the south.





The second part of the walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: The mysteries around Hillview

24 10 2010

Leaving the compound of St. Joseph’s Church (Bukit Timah) with the sun peeking through the clouds, after a pause in our trek down Upper Bukit Timah Road, it was a good time to get reacquainted with the railway track side of the road. We crossed the overhead bridge which provided a wonderful vantage point from which I was able to take in the tremendous changes that the area, which lies in the shadow of Singapore’s tallest hill, Bukit Timah Hill, has seen over the three to four decades since I had first become acquainted with it. Somehow, it didn’t seem that long ago when I would view the area from the backseat of my father’s car en route to an adventure across the causeway or on a visit to the orchid nursery in the Teck Whye area which was run by a friend of my mother. There was a time as well – that would have been in the 1980s, when I did pass through the area on my own – on my way to a friend’s place up on Chestnut Drive, when the road was a lot narrower and the area around seemed a lot less built up.

The area where the tracks run opposite St. Joseph's Church.

After another pause at an area by the train tracks, accessible from the main road as what has become a popular short-cut had been trampled through the vegetation from Hillview Avenue, where we were able to have a wonderful view of what we could imagine of as a pass that was carved through a hill and where we were treated to a dash of bright blue in the form of a White-Throated Kingfisher perched on a branch of a tree by the tracks , we made our way south towards a building that had served for many years as a landmark in the area. The building is the Standard Chartered Bank branch building at the entrance to Hillview Road – a building from which I could count the number of bus stops to ensure I stopped at the correct one, on a side of the road that had once been devoid of any form of landmarks to identify where one was – especially in the dark of night. I would be always be reminded by my friend to stop at the second bus stop after seeing “Chartered Bank” – which had stood at the same spot – almost unchanged since it was first opened in April 1957.

A view of the "pass" near Hillview Avenue.

The tracks, looking north, near the shortcut to Hillview Avenue.

The Chartered Bank, a popularly referred to landmark in the area, as it looks today.

The Chartered Bank branch building at Bukit Timah seen at its opening on 6 April 1957 (source: The Free Press, 16 April 1957).

The view from Upper Bukit Timah Road of the entrance to Hillview Road had in itself, always interested me since the days of my backseat adventures. Hillview Road, and Hillview Avenue beyond it was one area that my father never seemed to go through. Looking through the narrow passage under the concrete supports of the railway girder bridge that runs across Hillview Road – always seemed to somehow suggest a sense of mystery of what lay beyond – the rise of the road beyond the bridge obscuring what lay beyond the little that was visible through the passage under the bridge. It was only much later in life that I actually discovered, to a sense of disappointment, what had lay beyond the bridge, on a visit to the Lam Soon Building during the early days of my working life. Later – the road would be one that I would become familiar with, on the many visits made during the course of my work to the installation that stands at the top of Bukit Gombak. By that time of course, much of the area that had in fact been one that was home to many factories in my days of adventure, being where the likes of the Union Carbide and Castrol factories had been located – had been turned into an area where many new sought after private condominiums had sprung up.

The narrow passage under the girder bridge at Hillview Road always seemed to suggest what lay beyond it was a mystery.

On top of the girder bridge at Hillview Road.

The other side of the "pass" near Hillview Avenue.

A scene of what's left of rural Singapore ... found along the railway tracks in the Bukit Timah Corridor - just next to the girder bridge at Hillview Road.

Across the road from the Standard Chartered Bank, I was pleasantly surprised to see a very recognisable distinctive roof structure proudly stood atop a hill – one that I had been familiar with in my days wandering around the area close to St. Joseph’s Institution in Bras Basah Road as a schoolboy there at the end of the 1970s, and one that had hitherto remained unnoticed by me. It is of course the roof of the church that is part of the Trinity Theological College, and is identical to the one on top of the building that was church of the same college, that still stands today – at the original location of the college atop Mount Sophia, next to what had been the Methodist Girls’ School – close by the shortcut I had used to get over to Plaza Singapura as a schoolboy.

The roof of the Trinity Theological College church - identical to its predecessor on the top of Mount Sophia.

The buildings that used to be part of the Trinity Theological College on top of Mount Sophia.

Crossing back to the other side of the road to the Fuyong Estate area where Rail Mall is, we were able to get on the side where the tracks crosses Upper Bukit Timah Road over the first of the two black truss bridges that I have somehow always identified the area with, pausing again for some photographs of the bridge. What is nice about the bridge is the arched pedestrian passageway through the concrete supports of the bridge on the footpath below. Getting a first glimpse of the bridge – I was able to appreciate the beauty of the riveted steel structure that has given the area its distinct flavour for close to eight decades. What I was also able to appreciate was the amount of effort that it would take to maintain the bridge if it was to be conserved once the railway has no use for it when the terminal station is moved from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands – something that perhaps might prove prohibitive in any considerations taken be the authorities for their preservation – something that many of us would like to see.

The Rail Mall is close to the first of the black truss bridges on the southward journey down the Bukit Timah Corridor.

The view of the black truss bridge from the Rail Mall area.

The northbound view of the black truss bridge from the tracks.

The southbound view along the tracks from the black truss bridge.

Another view of the tracks up the black truss bridge.

The arched pedestrian passageway under the bridge.

Further along Upper Bukit Timah Road – we came to the area opposite the Old Ford Factory – I guess we would all be familiar with the factory and its significance in Singapore’s history as this is already very well documented. A lesser known fact about the area is perhaps the existence of a keramat – one that as some believers would have it, had a part to play in the cessation of fighting (prior to the surrender of the British to the Japanese at the Old Ford Factory) during the Second World War. That keramat, the Keramat Habib Syed Ismail, also popularly referred as the Keramat Batu Lapan – a reference to its location at the eight milestone of Bukit Timah Road, had laid in a clearing across the railway tracks, through a path into the seemingly thick vegetation that had existed in the area. The keramat was excavated several years ago and doesn’t exist today. The keramat, one that is of an Indian Muslim saint, was said to have been where Muslims had prayed for an end to hostilities during the Japanese invasion in early 1942 and fighting had as some would have it, stopped miraculously just across the road – making the keramat a highly venerated shrine for many years that followed.

Another view of the black truss bridge ... the bus is heading south towards the area where the old Ford Factory and the site of the former Keramat Batu Lapan is.

The ridge of the hill where the former Ford Factory, which was once an busy assembly plant for Ford Cars, also featured Hume Industries – a steel maker to the north – and it was these greyish structures that would come into sight on the southbound journeys in the backseat before one of my favourite sights along the way would come into view – the huge Green Spot bottle that stood at the entrance to the Amoy Canning Factory which stood next to the Bukit Timah Fire Station, close to what had been a traffic circus. The station was one that was in fact typical of the Fire Stations found in rural Singapore and much of Malaysia in the1960s and 1970s – one that had with it flatted quarters for the firemen and their families. Interestingly – there is also a crest on the station that I noticed passing by – one of the old Coat of Arms of Singapore – similar to the one that can be found atop Mount Emily at the entrance to Mount Emily Park – just next to Mount Sophia. Further along the way – where again private housing now stands across the road opposite the area close to where the entrance to Hindhede Road is – there was another factory on the ridge – one with a logo painted on the wall that was well known to me – from the many ice lollies that I had feasted on as a child, the Magnolia Factory.

The old Singapore Coat of Arms on the former Bukit Timah Fire Station.

Similar to the one that appears at the entrance to Mount Emily Park.

The former firemen's quarters next to the former fire station.

The rest of the trek took us to another another girder bridge, past Jalan Anak Bukit across a notorious shortcut to Rifle Range Road, past the other black truss bridge and onto our end point – Bukit Timah Station – something I guess I would have to find time later to prepare a post on.





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.


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Once Tanah Merah …

16 08 2010

There was at Tanah Merah, an idyllic world that in the Singapore of today, would be rather difficult to imagine. Set on a landscape on which the gentle undulations seemed to blend those of a forgotten sea, except for where a set of cliffs – the larger of two from which the area derives its name – stood, it was a most picturesque of spots and one in which many found an escape.

Caressed by the gentle breeze of the forgotten sea, Tanah Merah was where life was pretty; both for the occupants of the generously diemnsioned villas overlooking the sea, as it was for those whose humbler dwellings were marked by their thatched attap roofs.

Life was very much a beach for me, spending magical holidays by the sea in the Tanah Merah of old!

I first met the acquaintance of Tanah Merah as a child of three. A holiday taken at a huge government bungalow my parents were guests at, was to be the start of many early childhood encounters I was to have with the area.

Plymouth, the bungalow by the sea, near the village of Ayer Gemuroh, was one of two of a similar sort. The other was called Newquay. Perched on a small elevation that had overlooked the sea, it was typical of a colonial era house, its well selected position, a testament to the knack the British had for the best locations to house their colonial administrators.

The grounds of the bungalows at Tanah Merah, the Plymouth, at which I stayed at in Dec 1967 can be seen in the background.

As was typical of such houses, the bungalow was raised over the ground on stilt like columns. That I suppose, not only kept the vermin out, but also allowed ventilation through the slits in the wooden floorboards to keep the house cool in the oppressive tropical heat.

The bungalow would have been handed over to the Singapore government in the transition of the island from the colony to a state in the Federation and then independence. Several in the east, where the best beaches in Singapore were, were turned into holiday bungalows. This was to the benefit of the many civil service officers, in days when holidays at home by the sea were the fashion.

The entrance doorway of the Plymouth was accessible through a short flight of stairs.

The bungalow’s grassy and expansive grounds were shared with the neighbouring bungalow. A flight of stairs at its seaward end led to a terrace where benches allowed one to stare at the beach and sea beyond it.  Both the beach and the sea were accessible via another flight of stairs.

From the grounds, one climbed a short flight of stairs to the raised floor of the bungalow. This brought one up to a landing that led to a well ventilated lounge and dining area. Large airy bedrooms were also spread across the bungalow’s single level. The kitchen, and what would have been rooms that served as servants’ quarters, were found on behind the bungalows at ground level.

The expansive grounds where the bungalows were located was on a hillock close to Kampong Ayer Gemuruh that overlooked the sea.

The area around Ayer Gemuroh all was rather interesting. I would be given many views of the area from the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100 over the years that were to follow. The drives would take us from the holiday bungalows we would subsequently stay at in Mata Ikan, just southwest of Ayer Gemuroh, all the way to eastern ends of Changi Beach near Telok Paku where the waters were more pristine and also beyond which a favourite haunt of my parents, Changi Village, lay.

Map of the Kampong Ayer Gemuruh area showing the location of the Plymouth and Newquay (map source: Peter Chan).

The drives would take us through Wing Loong Road, down the area of the cliffs near where the road ended at Tanah Merah Besar Road. Moving beyond the T-junction, the road would become the marvellous Nicoll Drive, which ran along the casuarina lined beach and the sea, taking us past among other things, a children’s home.

Village scene, Kampong Ayer Gemuruh, 1963 (source: Peter Chan who obtained this photograph through a British guy whose father had worked in RAF Changi in the 1960s).

One of the sights to look out for during the drives would be David Marshall’s house by the sea. I was to learn much later that Marshall, who served as Singapore’s first Chief Minister upon the attainment of self-government, had the house named Tumasek and that it was where he entertained guests with his famous Sunday “curry lunches”. Marshall had set eyes on the house from a very young age and was able to purchase it only much later when its owner, a retiring accountant, wanted to sell it.

Aerial view of the coastline at the Tanah Merah area in 1964, close to the junction of Wing Loong Road with Tanah Merah Besar Road showing the “white cliffs” (source: Peter Chan).

The house then seemed a wonderful sight to behold. Set high over the sea, it greeted you especially on the approach from the northeast. It was from this point that the road  wound its way to Ayer Gemuroh and continued to the area where Mata Ikan was. The road moved inland from Mata Ikan towards Somapah Village. A path along the coastline would have taken one to Padang Terbakar and just beyond that to Bedok Corner

I had my first encounter with Kuda Kepang, a somewhat mystical dance of Javanese origins in which two-dimensional representations of horses are used, in passing Ayer Gemuroh on one of the drives. It was being performed in a clearing in the village for a wedding, as it would have been commonly seen in those days. Another sight from the village that would be etched in my memory is that of a group of boys walking around with their sarongs held away from their bodies by a frame. I would learn that the boys had just been circumcised and the frames, which presumably made of rattan, kept the sarongs from making painful contact with what must have been an especially tender spot.

Aerial view of the coastline at the Tanah Merah area in 1964, showing also Wing Loong Road (source: Peter Chan).

Another description of the area has also be provided by Peter Chan, who often guest blogs on Lam Chun See’s wonderful Good Morning Yesterday blog. I am also grateful to Peter for his aerial photographs, maps and some of the photographs in this post:

When you travel down Tanah Merah Besar Road, (after the junction with Tampines Road) you go down the “valley” and up the top then down the “valley” until you reach Nicoll drive junction. There was a sand pit on the left of Tanah Merah Besar Road (just before the junction) – you see like what you find in Malaya’s tin mining open cast mining this wooden “slide”.

Once you turn into Nicoll Drive on your right was Casuarina Motel (later called Aloha Rhu Village opened in 1971) with Hawaiian waitresses dressed in grass skirts. Then next was the Singapore Handicapped Home or Cheshire Chidlren’s home. In front of those homes was a WW2 pill-box.

You would then drive to 14 milestone Nicoll Drive. On your right you see one wooden community building – PA operated I think, called Tanah Merah Holiday Camp. There is a sharp bend to the right because there was the RAF Eastern Dispersal Area, and a road straight again to the Teluk Paku Road junction.

After this junction you find government division 1 holiday bungalows (black and white type, modern bungalows also – now where I think the SIA Engineering hangers are).

Teluk Mata Ikan was accessible from Wing Loong Road (metaled road), also from David Marshall house, from which one must pass 2SIB HQ called Tanah Merah Camp, which was built in 1966, There was also access from the north through Somapah Road.

There was a kampung and mosque at Ayer Gemuroh facing a cliff. Here are some photos you might need. I have written these up in my memories book. The PA venue could be called either Tanah Merah Holiday Camp or Changi Holiday Camp. The modern bungalows during RAF era were called B & H Bungalows (Brighton & Hoove still operate similar place in south England today)”.

The gateway to Tanah Merah. The junction of Tanah Marah Beasr Road, Changi Road and Tampines Road. The watch tower was a landmark in the area and was to watch over the perimeter fence around the piece of land in the background where prisoners from Changi Prison would be put to work (source: Peter Chan).

I suppose, beyond the descriptions provided, it would still be hard to fully appreciate what Tanah Merah was. Sadly for us and for the residents of the area, all the wonderment that a most beautiful of places provided, lives now only in our memories. That Tanah Merah, and its beautiful coast, lies in an area swallowed up by the massive land reclamation project of the early 1970s. Altering much of Singapore’s southern shores. In the case of Tanah Merah, it was to provide the land on which Changi Airport was to be built (a September 1970 news report in the Straits Times provides some information on the reclamation effort).

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline …

The reclamation brought to not just a time of magical adventures for me. It altered the lives of many who had lived and had an attachment to an area of which little evidence other than a name, is left these days. Some of the area lies under Changi Airport with Ayer Gemuroh itself, buried under Taxiway WA (which runs along Runway 02L of Changi Airport). I have included a Google Earth map below, in an attempt to identify the approximate locations of the places I have mentioned.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

All I have left of the most magical of places are some photographs, many fond memories, and a deep longing to return to an area that provided me with a joy that I have never again had the experience of.

tanah-merah

Tanah Merah Besar, 1958, posted by Graham Collins on Facebook.





That old rusty red coloured building along Sembawang Road

3 04 2010

There was a rusty red coloured building that once greeted the traveller along Sembawang Road. This would have been just after where the road started at the junction with Mandai Road. The building seemed to leap out at you on the right side of the road travelling north, just after you passed the old Post Office up Mandai Road on the left, breaking the monotony of what seemed an endless journey to the village of Chong Pang and towards Sembawang end, as was often the case on the many car rides to the Mata Jetty and the coastal villages near end of Sembawang Road, sitting in the back seat of the car. There were the other occasions when the journey was made by bus, which made it even longer, as was it would have been sitting even with the bus load of boisterous boys who were my classmates, on the road to (as it appeared to us) the inclined field at Sembawang School close to Chye Kay Village, to cheer the school football team playing for the North Zone schools championship, and perhaps later, on the bus journeys on service number 169 to Sembawang Shipyard.

The rusty red coloured building rising over the area, as seen in the mid 1980s, before it was demolished (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

The rusty red building was one that rose imposingly over the area, seemingly keeping the village around it hidden in its shadows, which dominated the area with its physical presence, and gave an immediately recognisable face to the village that had been given its name by the original owner of the building, the illustrious Lim Nee Soon. Nee Soon had in 1912, built the Thong Aik Rubber Factory that the building was a part of along what was then Seletar Road, to process the latex that was drawn from the rubber trees found in the plantations to the north of the area. Together with the many plantations that had come up around the area, which grew crops such as pepper, gambier and pineapple, along with the rubber trees, the factory provided opportunities drawing many immigrants to the area which had been referred to, in Teochew (many of the immigrants were Teochew speaking), as Kangkar, “Kangkar” being a geographical term used to describe an area by a river, the area being by the Seletar River. The factory was subsequently renamed as the Nee Soon and Sons Rubber Works in the 1920s, and in 1928, was taken over by “Rubber King” Lee Kong Chian and renamed Lee Rubber. In 1959, the factory was leased to Kota Trading Co. Sdn. Bhd. a subsidiary of Lee Rubber.

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

The rubber factory was leased by Kota Trading Co. Sdn. Bhd. a subsidiary of Lee Rubber in 1959.

I am not really sure when the factory disappeared – I remember seeing that it was still there on my way to the shipyard around 1983 and 1984 when Yishun New Town was being populated with people being resettled from the villages around. I guess it must have disappeared sometime after, perhaps in the later part of the 1980s. There is an empty feeling I get passing through the area today … along with the factory, the villages and the businesses around have mostly vanished, leaving the area almost like a ghost town.

Another view of the rusty red building (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

The buildings belonging to the rubber factory before being demolished (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

Another building belonging to the rubber factory before being demolished (Source: National Archives of Singapore).





The roads less travelled …

9 02 2010

As trivial as a fence may appear, a fence does have a place in the memories I have of my childhood. It is a fence that I now pass on the drive to work, which for a while seemed to deserve no more than a cursory glance at, part of the uninspiring landscape along the stretch of Tampines Road which is visible from the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE). The KPE is the latest addition to the Singapore’s impressive expressway network, which should really make travelling across Singapore a breeze.

The KPE running across Tampines Road.

All too frequently, though, driving along the KPE, as with many of the other expressways, is hardly a breeze, and one wonders if it would soon join the ranks of the “every road pay” network. “Every road pay” is of course what many locals use to refer to Electronic Road Pricing or ERP. It was on one of these crawls that I allowed my thoughts to drift as I surveyed the scene before me, and drift it did, as I was soon back in the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100, peering out of the open window at the fence.

Tampines Road in the 1960s - as it would have looked in the 1970s.

Tampines Road in the 1960s – as it would have looked in the 1970s.

For me, the fence, which marks the northern boundary of Paya Lebar Airbase (it was then the Paya Lebar International Airport), had served as a marker of sorts on the frequent long drives my father took along Tampines Road. Looking out for the fence helped to break the monotony of what seemed a long and boring journey, a journey that I willingly partook in for the reward that lay at the end of it, be it a fun day at the beach or wandering around the old Changi Village.

The high fence along Tampines Road.

The journey on Tampines Road would start with a right turn from Upper Serangoon Road, near the sixth milestone, just after the sixth mile market, an area my mother had fond memories of, having spent a part of her childhood in. She would never fail to mention a thing or two about her memories as my father turned into Tampines Road, about which my father would sometimes tease her about. The start of Tampines Road seemed to always be rather busy, as we followed the mini-convoys of rubbish trucks on their way to the Lorong Halus landfill.

The Upper Serangoon Road 6th Milestone area ... a well known market stood the left of the picture which has since disappeared - this is the junction where turn off to Tampines Road is.

The start of Singapore's longest road: Tampines Road.

The right trun from Upper Serangoon Road to Tampines Road would be accompanied by stories my mother had of the 6th milestone area from her childhood.

The first sight of the fence along the road was the precursor to the start of a meandering path eastwards through what was Singapore’s longest road. It was a path that would start with a large bend that brought us past a cluster of houses at Jalan Telawi, seemingly the last sighting of civilisation before we descended into the greener, narrower and quieter section of the road, passing by villages and fishing ponds … and of course Elias Road – the gateway to Pasir Ris beach.

The fence and the bend in the road signified the start of the meandering part of Tampines Road.

Immersed in the musings of a time when journeys on roads less travelled could only be undertaken at a pace far slower than what we are used to these day, my mind drifted off to the many journeys of my childhood along the other roads less travelled: Jurong, Choa Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang, Neo Tiew, Punggol, and Sembawang Roads to name a few. While many of these roads have been swallowed up or disfigured by redevelopment, a few remnants of the old stretches of these roads still remains, very much as how it had must have been, albeit devoid of the life the roads were built to sustain. These remnants sit silent and forgotten, discarded for the numerous highways that have replaced them to enable the sheer volume of today’s traffic to be carried.

A remnant of Jurong Road running parallel to the Pan Island Expressway.

The journeys on these roads always seemed to take forever. They were never journeys that were taken for the love of a long drive, but usually for the incentive that the destination provided. The ones to some of the “ends” of the island was usually reward with a feast of seafood in one of those wooden shacks that lay at the end of the road where land met the sea. Punggol and Tuas (accessible from Jurong Road) Roads featured these popular old style seafood restaurants where utensils and teacups would be brought to the table in a bowl of steaming hot water. There would of course be the customary bowl of water with lime cut in half bobbing up and down on the surface of the water. These were meant to clean one’s fingers as one fiddled with the delicious mess of gravy coated crabs and prawns that were served. The thought of this brings to mind a story that a friend of my father’s related. He had brought a foreign visitor to one of these restaurants and on seeing the bowl of water place on the table, the visitor prompted squeezed the lime in the bowl of water and emptied the contents of the bowl into his mouth, believing that it was a refreshment of sorts!

On occasion, the journey to Tuas would involve seafood harvested straight from the sea, in the glow of camphor lamps – the smell of which still lingers in my memory. This wasn’t a journey that my mother was particularly fond of, as it often meant a drive home in the wee hours of the morning, past a shadowy part of the old Jurong Road where the rather spooky looking Bulim cemetery always seemed to leap out at you. This was the road that would go through what would now be Bukit Batok housing estate, to the junction with Upper Bukit Timah Road. My mother would always heave a sigh of relief at he sight of Bukit Timah Fire Station and the huge Green Spot bottle at the entrance of the Amoy Canning factory, as this signified our the re-entrance to civilisation.

Where civilisation began ... the start of Jurong Road at the Bukit Timah Fire Station and the Green Spot Bottle next door.

Jurong Road would be the road the buses took on the many school excursions of my primary school days. Even then, the journeys seemed to take forever. I would look out for the distinctive JTC flats with the louvered windows of their exteriors at the junction of Jurong and Upper Jurong Roads, Jalan Bahar, and Jalan Boon Lay, where HDB flats seemed to feature common corridors, as it meant the journey would be drawing to its close. The turn left along Jalan Boon Lay would always be greeted with anticipation by my classmates, for near the end of the road, a whiff of chocolate would always greet us as we passed the Van Houten chocolate factory as we made our way along what seemed like a grand avenue lined with trees on the wide central divider.

What is nice to know is that there are a few remnants of the narrow roads less travelled that remain, some sitting beside their modern replacements which carry a much heavier volume of traffic to and from the huge densely populated public housing estates, constructed where there were once farms and villages. They serve as a reminder of the journeys that I have taken in my childhood some of which I have lasting impressions of.