A journey to the west

17 07 2015

Thought of as an essential transport link in the plan to transform the wild and undeveloped west into the industrial heart of Singapore, the Jurong railway line, which was launched in 1966, was one component of the grand scheme that never quite took off. Built with the intention to carry finished goods out of the huge manufacturing hub to the then domestic market in the Peninsula and to move raw materials to the new factories, the railway’s usefulness was to be surpassed by the efficient road transport network that was also in the works.

A remnant of the western reaches of the line in an area now taken over by nature.

A remnant of the western reaches of the line in an area now taken over by nature.

An overlay of the western reaches of the industrial railway shown on a 1980 1:25,000 road map of Singapore over a Google Map by cartographer Mr Mok Ly Yng.

The first train that ran, on a 9 mile (14.5 kilometre) journey from Bukit Timah to Shipyard Road on 11 November 1965, was greeted with much anticipation. Some $5.5 million had been invested on the railway. A total of 12 miles (19 kilometres) of tracks were being laid for the project. Passing over eight bridges and through three tunnels, the railway was expected to handle up to 2 to 3 million tons of cargo a year (see Straits Times report dated 12 November 1965, Jurong Railway makes first public run). It does seem that the railway, even in its first decade, fell short in terms of the anticipated amount of cargo it handled. A Report in the New Nation’s 2 June 1975 edition mentions that only 128,000 tons of cargo had been carried by the railway in 1974. The railway’s last whistle blew unnoticed, possibly some time in the early 1990s, barely a quarter of a century after its inauguration. The land, leased from the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), was returned and lay relatively untouched and the railway left abandoned and largely forgotten.

The first train coming to a halt at the western reach of the line next to the Mobil refinery (still under construction) at Shipyard Road (photo: National Archives online).

A scattering of broken concrete now marks the spot.

Now, some two decades after its abandonment, we are seeing what’s left of the railway fade further away. Large portions of the land on which it ran has in more recent times been turned over to more productive use. With the pace of this quickening of late, it may not be long before we see what is left of it lost to the now rapidly changing landscape of the industrial west. This was in fact very much in evidence during a recent walk I took with a few friends along the line’s western reaches. The once continuous corridor we had hope to walk along, is now interrupted by recent development activity, many of which take the shape of the multi-level ramp-up logistics facilities that increasingly seem to flavour the west.

What seems to dominate the industrial landscape of the west - the new ramp-up logistics facilities that now rise up above the zinc factory roofs.

What seems to dominate the industrial landscape of the west – the new ramp-up logistics facilities that now rise up above the zinc factory roofs.

The more visible reminders of the railway, at least in the area west of Teban Gardens, are probably found in its final kilometre close to where it came to a halt at Shipyard Road. A scattering of broken concrete, possibly the broken foundations of the railway buffers, marks what would have been the journey’s end. Following the line eastwards towards Tanjong Kling Road from that point will be rewarded with the former corridor’s western reaches’ largest sections of tracks and a concentration of railway signs. The section just east of refinery Road, would have been where several cement factories, which the railway was known to serve, were located.

Tracing the western reaches ....

Tracing the western reaches ….

Nature having its way over what's left of the tracks.

Nature having its way over what’s left of the tracks.

The western end of what is left of the tracks.

The western end of what is left of the tracks.

Nature taking over.

Nature taking over.

A section of the tracks.

A section of the tracks.

More signs of nature taking over.

More signs of nature taking over.

The now widened Tanjong Kling Road, where a level crossing was located at, marks the end of the section in which the rusting tracks can be found west of Teban, that is until Jurong Port Road. The curious sounding Tanjong Kling, a cape down the road of the same name, formerly Jalan Besi Baja, is where one finds a significant landmark in the industrialisation of Jurong, the National Iron and Steel Mills. The factory, was Jurong Industrial Estate’s first to start production on 2 August 1963. It has since been bought over by Tata Steel.

Tracks close to where the crossing at Tanjong Kling Road would have been.

Tracks close to where the crossing at Tanjong Kling Road would have been.

A level crossing sign.

A level crossing sign before Tanjong Kling Road.

There are several suggestions as to how the tanjong got its name. A rather intriguing suggestion is one that links it to one of the many fascinating tales of the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, the story of Badang. A 14th century champion of the king of Singapura whose strength was legendary, his reputation had reached the shores of the Kling kingdom (the term “Kling”, while regarded today as a derogatory reference to Indians, was commonly used term in the Malay language thought to have been derived from Kalinga, a southern Indian kingdom). This prompted the Rajah of Kling to send his strongman to Singapura to challenge Badang. The challenge, which some have it as having taken place at Tanjong Kling (hence its name), was won with ease by Badang. The champion of Singapura was not only able to lift a huge stone that the Kling strongman could only lift to the height of his knees, but also toss it, as the tale would have it, to the mouth of what is thought to be the Singapore River. There is a suspicion that this stone, was the same stone – the Singapore Stone, that once stood at the mouth of the Singapore River.

The first break in the continuity of the former corridor where a ramp-up logistics facility is being built just across the former crossing at Tanjong Kling Road.

A break in the continuity of the former corridor where a ramp-up logistics facility is being built just across the former crossing at Tanjong Kling Road.

Badang, if he were to take up the same challenge up today, might have required just a little more effort to send the stone in the same direction. Man-made obstacles of a different stone now surround the area around Tanjong Kling, one of which, a tall ramp-up logistics facility, now straddles the path the trains once took – just across Tanjong Kling Road. The newly built structure, cut our intended path off towards the western most of Singapore’s railway bridges.  A concrete girder bridge across Sungei Lanchar, its somewhat modern appearance tells us that it is a more recent replacement, possibly made necessary by  canal widening, for what would have been one of the line’s original bridges.

The western most railway bridge - a modern concrete bridge.

The western most railway bridge – a modern concrete bridge over Sungei Lanchar.

On the bridge over the Jurong River.

On the bridge over Sungei Lanchar.

Our attempt to follow the path of the railway was further hampered by recent extensions of factory spaces into the former corridor and a detour was required to take us to the location of the westernmost rail tunnel under Jalan Buroh. The tunnel, now a series of tunnels, lies under the huge roundabout and under the shadow of the bridge linking Jurong Pier Road to Jurong Island. This was to be the last we were to see of the former railway before we came to another former crossing that carried the trains across Jurong Port Road. We were to discover that all traces of the two southbound spur lines on either side of Jurong Port Road we had hope to walk along, still around until fairly recent times, have also all but disappeared.

In search of the tunnel under the Jurong Pier Circus.

In search of the tunnel under the Jurong Pier Circus.

A view of the tunnel, now obscured by vegetation.

A view of the tunnel, now obscured by vegetation.

The tunnel under Jalan Buroh seen in 1965 (National Archives online).

Another logistics facility standing where the line ran along Jurong Pier Road.

Another logistics facility standing where the line ran along Jurong Pier Road.

A southward view from Jalan Buroh towards what was the corridor along which the spur line west of Jurong Port Road ran.

A southward view from Jalan Buroh towards what was the corridor along which the spur line west of Jurong Port Road ran.

Where the  same spur line ran northwards.

Where the same spur line ran northwards.

The southward view to where the spur line east of Jurong Port Road ran.

The southward view to where the spur line east of Jurong Port Road ran.

A new road, evident from the plastic protection still on the road sign, running northward along what was the spur line east of Jurong Port Road.

A new road, evident from the plastic protection still on the road sign, running northward along what was the spur line east of Jurong Port Road.

Unable to follow our intended path, we settled for a walk up Jurong Port Road. This was rewarded with a rather interesting find in a factory building with its name in Chinese made using characters attributed to the hand of a renowned calligrapher, the late Pan Shou. The far end of the road from the factory, just south of what would have been Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim (now the Ayer Rajah Expressway or AYE), we find evidence of the former level crossing in a pair of metal rails embedded into the road. Close by are also several remnants of the tracks running east into what now seems to be a space for parking of heavy vehicles.

The detour we had to take along Jurong Port Road threw up an  interesting find - a factory building with its characters in Chinese made by the strokes of a renowned calligrapher Pan Shou.

The detour we had to take along Jurong Port Road threw up an interesting find – a factory building with its characters in Chinese made by the strokes of a renowned calligrapher Pan Shou.

Tracks of the former level crossing are in evidence at Jurong Port Road.

Tracks of the former level crossing are in evidence at Jurong Port Road.

Tracks seen in what seems to be used as a lorry parking space just south of the former Jurong Bus Interchange.

Tracks seen in what seems to be used as a lorry parking space just south of the former Jurong Bus Interchange.

The end of the lorry park, which lies south of the site of another one time Jurong landmark, the former Jurong Bus Interchange, is where another girder bridge, is to be found. Possibly one of the original steel bridges, the railway tracks one the bridge is still largely intact. Further east, traces of the line disappear until the area just past the pedestrian overhead bridge across the AYE from Taman Jurong. Here, some sleepers can be seen, embedded into a seemingly well trodden path.

The bridge close to the former Jurong Bus Interchange.

The steel girder bridge close to the former Jurong Bus Interchange.

A view on top of the bridge.

A view on top of the bridge.

The area once occupied by the former interchange.

The area once occupied by the former interchange.

Evidence of the tracks off the AYE.

Evidence of the tracks off the AYE across from Taman Jurong.

Further east, we come to the part of Singapore that will serve the railway of the future as its end point. The journey of the future, to the west of Singapore from Kuala Lumpur, would involve an amount of time that would probably be a little more that the time it might have taken the industrial trains of old to make the journey down from Singapore’s north – not counting the time it would take to clear border formalities. Just across the AYE from the future terminus, the industrial trains, running along the former Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim, would have passed over Sungei Jurong. A long span concrete girder bridge, another that is probably more recent, tells us of this, as does the remnants of another steel girder bridge – the last piece of the railway we were to discover before the end of what turned out to be a 10 kilometre walk.

The concrete bridge - across the Jurong River.

The concrete bridge – across the Jurong River.

On the evidence of what we saw during the long but not so winding walk was how the landscape of the industrial west is rapidly changing. Ramp-up logistics hubs are now growing out of spaces that would once have been given to low-rise production facilities and large parts of the former rail corridor. This signals a shift towards a fast-growing industrial sector that now accounts for some 9% of Singapore’s GDP.  What was also evident is that it will not be long before all traces of the railway in the industrial west is lost and with that the promise with which the first train ran in the first few months of our independence, will completely be forgotten.


See also: Photographs of the remnants of the same stretch of line taken by Mr Leong Kwok Peng of the Nature Society in 2011.





Keeping the fire burning …

22 06 2015

One of the last two dragons of Singapore, the Thow Kwang dragon kiln, was brought to life over the weekend, its flames fed by a team of potters and volunteers working through the night. The use of such kilns, a tradition imported by the Teochew community, served a necessary purpose in the production of latex cups in the days when rubber plantations covered large parts of Singapore’s rural landscape. At its height, the would be kept running with little pause through a cycle of packing, firing, cooling and unpacking that would take place up to four times a month.

Keeping the fire burning at Thow Kwang.

Keeping the fire burning at Thow Kwang.

With the end of rubber production on the island, many kilns lost their relevance. Some turned to making flower pots in the 1980s, a decade that saw many others forced to close. Today, only the former Guan Huat and Thow Kwang kilns, both of which are located off Jalan Bahar, have survived.

Wood for firing in the glow of the kiln.

Wood for firing in the glow of the kiln.

The inferno inside the firing box.

The inferno inside the firing box.

The first row of pots seen  through the flames.

The first row of pots seen through the flames.

Fired by those with the passion to keep an age-old tradition alive, for now at least the dragons still breathe. The kilns operate on land that the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) now owns, are on an extension to their respective leases that could see them used up to 2023/2024, beyond which, little is known of what will become of them.

Feeding the dragon.

Feeding the dragon.

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To learn more about the kiln, how it is fired and also the art of wood-fired pottery, there is a wonderful app (only for iPad at the moment) that can be downloaded at Dragon Fire.

Ms Carolyn Lim giving a demo of the iPad app.

Ms Carolyn Lim giving a demo of the iPad app.

More information on the Thow Kwang kiln and its previous firings and some of the preparatory work that goes on before a kiln is fired, do also visit some of my previous posts:

A look at the remains of what is thought to have been a Hokkien 3-chamber kiln that predates the dragon kiln.

A look at the remains of what is thought to have been a Hokkien 3-chamber kiln that predates the dragon kiln.





Remnants of a lost forest

9 10 2014

The first Sunday in October had me paddling a kayak through what turned out to be a surprisingly area of mangroves in a part of Singapore where nature has long abandoned. Described by the Nature Society (Singapore) as “the most extensive mangrove forest in the southern coastline of mainland Singapore”, the mangroves line the banks of a stretch of Sungei Pandan where the industrial march that has all but conquered Singapore’s once wild southwest is quite clearly evident.

Kayaking through the Sungei Pandan mangroves.

Kayaking through the Sungei Pandan mangroves.

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The Sungei Pandan mangroves, found along the stretch of river that lies between the Pandan Tidal Gates and the Sungei Pandan Bridge, is perhaps the last remnants of the lush mangrove forest that had once lined much of the banks of the Pandan and Jurong Rivers that had been offered protection as the Pandan Forest Reserve. The reserve covered an area of 542 acres or 219 ha. in 1966 and may have covered an even larger area before that – a newspaper article from 1928 had put the area of the reserve at 639 acres or 259 ha. and had been one of 15 forest areas that was protected under the Forest Ordinance enacted in 1908, and later, the 1951 Nature Reserves Ordinance.

The Pandan Tidal Gates.

The Pandan Tidal Gates.

A 1945 Map showing the extent of the Pandan Forest Reserve.

A 1945 Map showing the extent of the Pandan Forest Reserve.

The death knell for the mangrove reserve was sounded in the 1960s when land was needed for the expansion of Jurong Industrial Estate. An amendment to the Nature Reserves Ordinance in 1966 saw it lose the 186 acres (75 ha.) on the west bank of Jurong River and that was filled up to create much needed land for the fast expanding industrial zone. The reserve was to lose its status altogether in 1968 when a further amendment to the Ordinance removed the reserve from its schedule of protected forest areas to allow what was described as the “rapid growth of Jurong Industrial Estate”.

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The mangrove forest, besides being home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna, also hosted human inhabitants, many of whom were fishermen who depended on cast net prawn farming in the vicinity of the river mouths and the islands for a livelihood. One of the isolated villages that was found at the edge of the watery forest, was Kampong Teban, described in an article from The Singapore Free Press dated 13 January 1958 as “a village of 135 people living in 27 cottages, some built on stilts over the ooze and slime on the river bank”. The villagers were to see their lives altered by developments n the early 1960s, when part of the area was given to prawn farming.

Kampong Teban, 1958 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

Kampong Teban, 1958 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

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The original mouth of Sungei Pandan, was where the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club (RSYC), then the Royal Singapore Yacht Club, moved its premises to, on land reclaimed from the mangroves, in 1965. The club, which traces its origins to 1826, moved in 1999 sometime after it lost its seafront to land reclamation. Its former clubhouse is now occupied by the Singapore Rowing Association – close to where the kayaking trip started.

The entrance to the grounds of the Singapore Rowing Association, formerly the site of the RSYC.

The entrance to the grounds of the Singapore Rowing Association, formerly the site of the RSYC.

The start point for the kayak trip.

The start point for the kayak trip.

Paddling through the greenery offered by the mangroves, nipah palms and mangrove ferns, the sounds of tree lizards and birds were most evident. Beyond the distinct calls belonging to the ashy tailorbird and the pied fantail – birds that often are heard before they are seen, the likes of grey and striated herons, and white-bellied sea eagles gave their presence away flying overhead. A special treat came in the form of an Asian paradise flycather – a particularly beautiful avian resident of the watery forest, dancing across the mangrove branches. Besides the lizards and the birds, the forest is also plays host to fauna such as mud lobsters, mudskippers, horseshoe crabs, mangrove snails and the dog-faced water snake.

The dance of the Asian paradise flycatcher...

The dance of the Asian paradise flycatcher…

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A grey heron in flight.

A grey heron in flight.

Another grey heron in flight.

Another grey heron in flight.

A striated heron perched on a fallen trunk.

A striated heron perched on a fallen trunk.

The Sungei Pandan mangroves is all that remains of a once rich mangrove forest. What the crystal ball that is the URA Master Plan tells us is that the area in which it is situated has been designated as a park space. It would be nice to see that the mangroves remain untouched, not just to remind us of the lost forest, but more importantly to protect an area that despite its location and size, is a joyously green space teeming with life.

Minister of State Desmond Lee - an avid bird watcher.

One of the kayakers was Minister of State Desmond Lee, who is an avid bird watcher.

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The dragon comes alive for Mid-Autumn

9 09 2014

The Dragon has been brought to life for the third time this year, being fired up this time around for an international gathering of clay artists in Singapore for the International Chawan Exposition. The 16th edition of the exposition is being held in Singapore from 6 to 14 September 2014 and includes a wood firing event from 8 to 10 September at the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

Making offerings to the kiln god at the start of the firing.

Making offerings to the kiln god to mark the start of the firing.

The firing event, the opening of which coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival last evening, is open to the public on 9 and 10 September. More information on the International Chawan Exposition can be found at http://www.chawanexpo.com/singapore.html. More information on the kiln and its history can be found in some of my previous posts on Thow Kwang.

More photographs from last evening’s opening:

The packed kiln.

The packed kiln.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Preparing offerings to the kiln god.

Preparing offerings to the kiln god.

Offering a prayer to the kiln god.

Offering a prayer to the kiln god.

The gathering of artists with Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of the National Heritage Board.

The gathering of artists with Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of the National Heritage Board.

Lighting the fire.

Lighting the fire.

The initial flames ... the fire is fed slowly to allow a gradual build up of temperature.

The initial flames … the fire is fed slowly to allow a gradual build up of temperature.

Paper offerings being burnt in the kiln.

Paper offerings being burnt in the kiln.

The full autumn moon graced the occasion.

The full autumn moon graced the occasion.

Lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The firing is being held for the 16th edition of the International Chawan Expo.

The firing is being held for the 16th edition of the International Chawan Expo.

Good music went with the good food at the opening.

Good music went with the good food at the opening.

Flames seen through an opening in the firing box.

Flames seen through an opening in the firing box.





The mystery of Bukit Gombak

13 03 2014

An area of Singapore that does seem to have an air of mystery about it is Bukit Gombak. The location of what reputedly was one of Singapore’s most haunted places, Hillview Mansion, which once stood high on its eastward facing slope, the hill and its environs has also gained a somewhat sinister reputation for other ghostly encounters, some of which seem to have been attributed as the cause of several unfortunate incidents that have taken place in the hill’s disused water filled quarries.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

Besides the supernatural, a mystery that is of a less sinister nature is that of a concrete structure. Now in a state of collapse, the structure stands at the top of a steep incline that runs up from a cut leading to the former Seng Chew Granite Quarry. The structure is one that was documented by my friends from the One° North Explorers, who had first stumbled upon it sometime in 2005 when it was in better shape and was being used to house a makeshift shrine (see: The Forsaken Quarry of the West And the Mysterious Shrine).

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several secrets.

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several ghostly secrets.

It was in the company of James Tann, a long time resident of the area, and Andrew Him and Chris Lee of One° North Explorers, that I was to  pay a visit to the structure over the weekend, with the intention to search for further clues as to what it may have been.  From James, we were to learn quite a fair bit that wasn’t just confined to the area’s history, but also to the area’s geology. It was from the depths of his vast local knowledge that I was to discover that the rocky ground on which I had been standing on was in fact one of the oldest rock formations that I could stand on in Singapore (see: Singapore Landscapes: the secret lake).

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

With the area being one that had a strong connection with the military – the British having maintained a military installation and radar station on the ridge line that ran from Bukit Gombak to Bukit Panjang, and the Japanese having set up camp on the hill during the occupation, James had suspected that the collapsed structure might have been a Japanese built pillbox from World War II. There was also a suggestion from the One° North Explorers that it could have been a blasting shelter, as one might have expected to find on the grounds of the quarry.

More of the structure.

More of the structure.

Part of the collapsed roof.

Part of the collapsed roof.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

Bashing through.

Bashing through.

Standing on its foundation of Gombak norite and in its collapsed state, there wasn’t much more that the structure did give away. What did seem like its flat roof, had completely caved in, burying whatever clues that might otherwise have been discovered under it. The only remnant of the structure that seemed to be left standing was a wall of concrete bricks with little else but a semi-corroded steel backing plate that might have been used to act as a support for a mounting inside the structure.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A close-up of the wall.

A close-up of the wall.

Built into the contours of the slope on the side of the quarry, there was also evidence of what did seem to be a substantial concrete structure. That might possibly been erected to act as a blast barrier – supporting the suggestion that what was there may have been that blasting shelter, along with the fact that the collapsed structure had its entrance on the slope away from the quarry. Kim Frost, a WWII vehicle expert,  did also unearth a grove on the top of the thick layer of concrete that does resemble a drain – possibly to provide drainage from runoff flowing down the slope.

Another look at the wall.

Another look at the wall.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

From another angle.

From another angle.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

While all does seem to point to the structure being a blasting shelter, that is still this lingering suspicion that the structure could still be a military one, including it being an entrance to a tunnel – similar to what we do see of the tunnels at Marsiling that was recently in the news, especially so when a newspaper report I came across does give evidence of their construction at Bukit Gombak.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

The report, in the 17 November 1953 edition of The Straits Times that was headlined “$50 MIL. OIL PIPE PLAN IS ABANDONED“, relates to the abandonment of  what it called a “top-secret project”, that is spite of half the budgeted sum already expanded in the twelve years of effort, interrupted by the war, put into carving out tunnels and oil storage tanks under Bukit Gombak. That was all part of an attempt to build what would have been a hidden storage facility, capable of holding “hundreds of thousands of gallons of petrol [sic]” to fuel the Far East Fleet based at the Naval Base.

A concrete block.

A concrete block.

The project would have seen some fourteen underground oil tanks built along with access and maintenance tunnels and a pumping station, and with a network of pipelines laid. From the report, we can surmise that work would have started in 1941 with the Japanese continuing with it during the occupation. The Royal Navy recommenced work on it in 1946 before abandoning the project in 1953. The report does mention that the tunnels and tanks were filled up after the project was stopped as well as “several miles of underground pipes” dug up.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling, which may have been similar in construction to the Gombak storage facility.

This certainly is an interesting parallel to set of tunnels that have been found at Marsiling that was the subject of a recent WWII related tour organised by the National Heritage Board. While that, located on what was fringe of the Naval Base, is thought to have been built as an aviation fuel storage facility, the one at Bukit Gombak located away from the Naval Base, was being built to serve as a fuel storage for the naval fleet.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

With the military presence continuing at Bukit Gombak and the developments that have taken place around the hill, there is little more evidence that can be found of what the structure might once have been. It may also not be long before the structure disappears completely – survey markers seen in the area do show signs there is recent interest in perhaps the redevelopment of the area, which does mean that we may never unravel the mystery of what the collapsed structure was.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden - probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden – probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

More evidence of the secret garden.

More evidence of the secret garden.





The dragons live on

4 08 2013

It is indeed wonderful news that the last of the two dragon kilns in Singapore will see an extension to their tenure which should add at least nine more years to their lives. The future of the kilns, the Thow Kwang kiln and the Guan Huat kiln, beyond when their current leases run out (at end of 2014 and in early 2015 respectively), had very much been in doubt – the area is currently being developed into a CleanTech Park by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) (see also a previous post: A dragon draws breath).

A look into the belly of the dragon - the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

A look into the belly of the dragon – the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

What is perhaps more significant about the news is that the National Heritage Board (NHB) is behind the extension of the tenure, which will be for an initial term of three years and renewable for two further terms of three years each, giving due recognition to the heritage value of the kilns.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

That the kilns are of heritage value, there certainly isn’t any doubt. They were once a feature of the area, as well as several other rural areas in Singapore, providing not only clay latex cups essential to the rubber plantations found across much of the rural landscape, but also employment opportunities which together with the estates, drew communities to the areas close to where they were set up.

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

The kilns were established to satisfy demand for clay latex cups. Once demand fell as rubber plantations were cleared out for industrialisation, the kilns turned to making flower and orchid pots.

As many as nine such kilns were thought to have been established in the area, off a stretch of Jurong Road from the 13th to the 17th milestones. What did draw so many to the area was as much the demand for latex cups as it was the white Jurong clay which made a perfect raw material. The area where the two remaining kilns are found, do in fact have a pottery making history that goes beyond what essentially are kilns brought to Singapore by the Teochew community.  During a refurbishment of the Thow Kwang kiln a few years back, evidence was uncovered of what is thought was a Hokkien 3-chamber kiln next to the current kiln (see also: Into the belly of the dragon).

Stoke holes found of the earlier kiln on the site of the dragon kiln.

Stoke holes found of an earlier Hokkien kiln on the site of the Thow Kwang kiln.

Both the existence of kilns in the area and the evidence of the previous kiln does provide an important link to the rich heritage of the Jurong area, as well as to the area’s early development history, much of which has already been lost to the industrialisation of the area. For the owners of Thow Kwang kiln, Mr Tan Teck Yoke and his wife Mrs Yulianti Tan, the motivation is as much their interest in maintaining this link, as it is a desire to maintain a tradition passed down from Mr Tan’s father who bought the kiln in 1965.

Evidence of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

Evidence of the stepped chamber of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

The kiln is no longer commercially viable as it was when the elder Mr Tan purchased it – demand for latex cups vanished when the area’s rubber plantations did, and the Tan’s maintain it out of pure passion and it was with much happiness and relief with which they received the news which came at a press conferenced called by NHB at the kiln yesterday morning.

Fishing by a potter's hut.

A potter’s hut at Thow Kwang which was already demolished as it was on part of the land that was taken back by the Jurong Town Corporation.

At the press conference, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend as I was due to speak at a Queenstown Symposium, Mr Alvin Tan, Group Director (Policy) of the NHB, spoke of both the heritage and artistic value – the two remianing kilns being “a unique part of Singapore’s pottery history” as well as that the traditional wood-firing kilns are now used by clay artists to achieve a unique glaze on their work.

The natural beauty of wood fire kiln fired  pottery - the windward side is glazed by the ash and salt while the other side is left unglazed.

The natural beauty of wood fire kiln fired pottery – the windward side is glazed by the ash and salt while the other side is left unglazed.

The kilns are indeed a unique part of our history and it is my hope that they will remain a part of a Singapore in which we have already lost too much of.

Further information on Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln





A dragon draws breath

3 12 2012

This Chinese year of the dragon is one which has seen a dragon awakened from its slumber. The dragon, the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln, is one of two surviving wood-fired Teochew kilns in Singapore, referred to as dragon kilns as its long semi-circular cross-sectioned chamber resembles the body of the mythical beast, more commonly referred to as ‘snake kilns’ where they originated from in Chaozhou in Guangdong Province in China. One of nine similar kilns found off a stretch of Jurong Road from the 13th to the 17th milestones attracted to the area by the demand for clay latex cups from the area’s rubber plantations, the kiln today is no longer operating commercially – demand for the wares was lost with the disappearance of the rubber plantations, and is kept running by the owner Mr Tan Teck Yoke and his wife Mrs Yulianti Tan purely for their desire to maintain the tradition.

A look into the belly of the dragon - the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

A look into the belly of the dragon – the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

Thow Kwang dragon kiln during the MMarch 2012 firing.

Thow Kwang dragon kiln during the March 2012 firing.

At the height of the demand for latex cups, the dragon would have found it had to keep its breath. Fired four times a month, work in and around the kiln would have gone on continuously – the actual firing done over a 24 hour period, after which the kilns would be left for up to a week to cool, unpacked and repacked for the next cycle. As demand fell in the 1980s, the surviving kilns turned to the production of flower pots but unfortunately demand for that also fell off and by the 1990s, most of the dragons seemed to have drawn a last breath with most disappearing with the wave of urbanisation that had swept across the area at the end of the 1980s and during the early 1990s.

Feeding the fire - firing is now done twice a year on the average where in its heyday, the kiln would have been fired up to four times a month and work in and around it went on very much around the clock.

Feeding the fire – firing is now done twice a year on the average where in its heyday, the kiln would have been fired up to four times a month and work in and around it went on very much around the clock.

One of two kilns still left at the end of the 1990s – the other being the former Guan Huat kiln next door, it wasn’t until the mid 2000s approached that interest in the kiln was revived – firings to support a local community of clay potters restarted in 2003. In the case of the former Guan Huat kiln, it became part of the Singapore Tourism Board funded Jalan Bahar Clay Studios at which firings recommenced in 2004. Firings now take place on the average of twice a year, when sufficient quantities of clay pieces do accumulate and are now occasions for the artists’ communities to celebrate as well as providing the artists and the kiln operators with an opportunity to further their understanding and to document the process and results (not much has previously been documented on the kiln firing process).

The kiln now supports a community of clay potters. Clay pieces are seen stacked on a kiln shelf prior to firing. Pyrometric cones used to determine temperature from previous firings are shown - the temperature at which the cones are rated at is reached when the cone bends fully.

The kiln now supports a community of clay potters. Clay pieces are seen stacked on a kiln shelf prior to firing. Pyrometric cones used to determine temperature from previous firings are shown – the temperature at which the cones are rated at is reached when the cone bends fully.

I was presented with an opportunity to observe the preparations and as the firing at Thow Kwang in March 2012 (the kiln has subsequent to the March firing, been fired twice, the latest being on 30 November). The kiln, built in the 1940s, was bought over by Mr Tan’s father in 1965. The kiln has seventeen stoke holes, used to feed the fire through each intermediate area of the chamber. In the past, all seventeen would have been used. During the firing in March only six were used during the March firing.

The firing session provides an opportunity to observe the preparations in the lead up to the firing as well as the firing itself. Firing commences after prayers to the kiln god are offered. Offerings are placed on an altar on top of the firing box.

The firing session provides an opportunity to observe the preparations in the lead up to the firing as well as the firing itself. Firing commences after prayers to the kiln god are offered. Offerings are placed on an altar on top of the firing box.

Preparations start with the rush by the potters to complete their clay pieces. It is in the week before the firing that a frenzy starts at the kiln site with work to set up and pack the kiln shelves in the chamber of the kiln. The shelves need to be carefully arranged in the chamber. Placed in the areas between the stoke holes, wadding or balls of clay used to support clay pieces on the shelves, are dropped from the stoke holes to help in determining if the correct placement. Clay pieces are then stacked on the shelves, with each piece is supported on cockle shells or wadding to prevent them from fusing to the shelves. Once stacking is completed, the access openings to the chamber are sealed with bricks and clay.

A kiln shelf stacked prior to firing.

A kiln shelf stacked prior to firing.

Each firing session starts with prayers to the kiln god during which offerings are placed on an altar above the firing box. Wood is fed over a better part of the day into the firing box, located at the bottom end of the kiln, to bring the temperature up to the desired temperature of 1260 degrees Celcius. Where the temperature had traditionally been determined through observation of the colour of the flames in the chamber, temperature sensors and pyrometric cones now help in doing this.

A pyrometric cone seen through a stoke hole bends in the heat.

A pyrometric cone seen through a stoke hole bends in the heat.

The feeding of wood into the fire is very much a manual task – the artists to take turns at it. The effort is one that the artists feel is rewarded by the finishing that only a wood firing is able to give to a clay piece. The resulting uneven (and unpredictable) glaze, achieved by a mix of salt (thrown into the stoke holes) and wood ash only on the windward side of the pieces, does give the wood-fired clay pieces each a unique appearance.

Feeding the fire through a stoke hole.

Feeding the fire through a stoke hole.

When the temperature at the firing box does reach the 1260 degrees, its openings are closed. The feeding of wood is then transferred to the first stoke hole and moved to the next to bring the fire up the chamber – the process repeated until the required section of the chamber has been fired. The length of the firing session does depend very much on the effects that are desired, now that it is carried out for artistic pieces. The session in March went on for some 36 hours before the kiln was left to cool for about a week. The unpredictable nature of wood firing does carry risks of damage to the artwork and during the March firing, the first shelf collapsed with several large clay pots falling and breaking.

Flames seen passing through an opening hole (for inserting a temperature sensor) on a covered stoke hole.

Flames seen passing through an opening hole (for inserting a temperature sensor) on a covered stoke hole.

Pieces from a collapsed shelf seen through the firing box.

Pieces from a collapsed shelf seen through the firing box.

While the motivation to keep the kiln going is one of a desire to preserve history and tradition, it is a tradition that is under threat. The future for the kiln looks rather bleak – its current lease expires in 2014 and with developments in the area – a CleanTech Park built by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) in the area is fast taking shape, it may be that this old dragon of Jalan Bahar, may well have drawn the last of its breaths.

An unevenly glazed clay piece from the March firing.

An unevenly glazed clay piece from the March firing.

A piece that was supported by a cockle shell bearing the mark of the support.

A piece that was supported by a cockle shell bearing the mark of the support.








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