Monoscapes: Dawn on the strait

18 04 2013

7.20 am on the last day of March 2013, a man is seen casting a net, dwarfed by the silhouettes of towering structures of the approaching new world. The casting of the net, was an economic activity on the strait which was common in times past. Economic activities of the modern world have in the last four decades or so, made their appearance on the strait, and have made the activities of the old world less relevant.

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The Straits of Johor where this photograph was taken, also known as the Tebrau Strait or Selat Tebrau, was once the domain of a group of sea dwellers, a nomadic people referred to as the Orang Laut (which translates to “Sea People”) or Sea Gypsies. The sub-group of the Orang Laut,  referred to as the Orang Seletar or in their own language, Kon Seletar, moved around on boats which also served as homes through mangroves which once dominated both sides of the strait, living off the waters. The boats they lived on were about 20 feet long with a stove at one end and their dwellings at the other end under an awning of sorts.

The suggestions are that the group, who had already established themselves in the area well before Raffles landed in 1819 – it was reported that there were an estimated 200 Orang Seletar living on some 30 boats in Singapore when Raffles landed, took its name from the Sungei Seletar or Seletar River – which once spilled into the strait (it has since been dammed at its mouth).

Another suggestion is that the group had in fact given their name to the river. Seletar is also a name that the northern coastal area of Singapore which included what is Sembawang today (Sembawang Road was originally called Seletar Road) became known as. Seletar Island which is close to the mouth of Sungei Simpang, had in fact hosted a community of Orang Seletar up to 1967 or so.

One of the last to settle on land, the Orang Seletar have today largely assimilated into the larger Malay society and a greater number of them now live on the Johor side of the strait. In Singapore, there were several individuals from the community who intermarried and settled in Kampong Tanjong Irau. The kampong was also known to be the home of some Orang Kallang, another Orang Laut group who were originally from the mouth of the Kallang River who had initially been displaced from places such as Kampong Kallang Rokok on the Kallang River, moving first to the Seletar area. The construction of the airbase at Seletar meant they had to move again and some chose to move westwards to Tanjong Irau.





Paradise found in a paradise lost

7 08 2012

Very early on a Saturday morning, I found myself boarding a boat headed for Singapore’s offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau. Established in the sea space that once separated two of Singapore’s once inhabited southern islands, Pulau Sakeng (or Seking as it was also known as) and (the original) Pulau Semakau, and contained by a 7 kilometre bund, the landfill has seen the creation of an enlarged single island which has kept the name of the larger of the two islands, Pulau Semakau.

The enlarged Pulau Semakau has been created from a landfill between two existing islands the original Pulau Semakau (to the west) and the smaller Pulau Sakeng (to the east) that is contained by a 7 km perimeter bund.


(Memories of Pulau Seking (Sakeng) posted on youtube by a former resident)

The original Southern Islands of Singapore – Pulau Seking (Sakeng) can be seen south of Pulau Bukom. The larger island to the west of Pulau Seking was the original Pulau Semakau to which it is now attached .

What had motivated me to catch a taxi at 4.15 in the morning just to get on the boat wasn’t so much a fascination for what Singapore does with its waste, but a intertidal walk on, what may surprise some, an expansive tidal flat on what is left of a natural shoreline that has long been known to be rich in marine biodiversity – that despite the extensive disturbance of the natural environment caused by what has gone on around the island. The large tidal flat is one of the few that’s also left in a Singapore that has been robbed of much of its natural shorelines by the extensive land reclamation work that has been carried out both on its mainland and offshore and offers an experience that is well worth waking up at 3.45 am for.

Part of the natural shoreline of the original Pulau Semakau which has an expansive tidal flat still exists in the north-western corner of the enlarged island, home to an offshore landfill.

The journey to Pulau Semakau began with a boat ride at 5.15 am.

A very comfortable hour’s boat ride from Marina South Pier was all it took to get to the island. The ride in the darkness before daybreak offered none of the excitement that had accompanied my first journeys to the southern islands, but the ride was certainly by a very similar sense of anticipation. The point of landing on Pulau Semakau was the area which once had been Pulau Sakeng, the last to be vacated of the two islands in the early 1990s and cleared of its stilted wooden dwellings that extended out from its shoreline, bears no resemblance at all to an island that for its inhabitants would have seemed like a little piece of paradise compared to the all too crowded mainland they now find themselves in.

… which arrived at about 6.20 am at what once was Pulau Sakeng (now part of the enlarged Pulau Semakau).

What was meant to have been a half an hour’s walk to the north-west corner of the enlarged island and where what is left of the tidal flats which had once surrounded the original Pulau Semakau is still left relatively untouched, turned into one that took a little more than an hour with the distraction caused by the colours of the fast lightening sky behind us. From the wide roadway built on top of the northern bund we had walked along, we trudged through a small mosquito infested forested area to get to the tidal flats, which by the time we got there, lay exposed by the tide which had already ebbed, with a few bakau mangrove trees to greet us and perhaps remind us of the coastal vegetation which would have once encircled the island, and is thought to give the island its name.

The walk into the darkness towards the western end of Pulau Semakau.

The colours of the sunrise served to lengthen what would have been a half an hour’s walk along the bund.

The view towards Pulau Jong.

Tidal flats have for me always served as wonderful places for discovery and walks I am now able to take on such flats always bring to mind the wonderful excursions of the sea grass fields off Changi Beach of my childhood, during a time when the sandy seabed there was littered with an abundance of knobbly sea stars, sea cucumbers, and crabs darting across and burrowing into the sand. Those were times when armed with a butterfly net, we would fill a small plastic pail with harvest of edible marine snails (gong-gong), shrimps and flower crabs which we could put on a grill.

A forested area separates the natural shoreline at the western end from the paved road constructed on the bund.

The sun rises over the flat.

Evidence of a concrete jetty that was once used by the island’s inhabitants seen in the mangroves.

A lone mangrove on the tidal flat.

Mangrove regeneration … besides the naturally occurring regeneration of mangroves, mangroves have been replanted along the areas of the coastline disturbed by the work that has gone on.

A group of photographers walking across the tidal flat.

Another view of the tidal flat looking towards Pulau Bukom.

A field of sea grass.

The tide starting to flow in – a view towards the edge of the tidal flat.

A sense of the space on the flat.

Right at the beginning of the walk on the tidal flat, our guide, Ron, made a very interesting discovery – a red nudibranch (sea-slug) that he had not previously spotted on the flats in the many other occasions he has visited it. There was a lot more that the flat was to reveal over the very interesting two-hour walk including three varieties of sea cucumber, two other very pretty looking nudibranchs, moon snails, anemones, flat worms, a giant clam, knobbly sea stars and even a very shy octopus that dove for cover as soon as it was spotted – best seen through the photographs that follow …

A red nudibranch not seen on the flats before.

A very pretty nudibranch – the Gymnodoris rubropapulosa.

A third nudibranch – Jorunna funebris (Funeral Nudibranch).

A flat worm.

And one in its natural environment.

Close-up of a maze coral.

Knobbly sea stars.

A tube anemone.

Another anemone.

Sea cucumber.

Zoanthids.

Moon snail.

The intertidal walk that I participated in is one of several ways in which Pulau Semakau can be visited, and was one that was run by licensed tour guide Robert Heigermoser. Other ways in which the island can be visited are on activities organised by interest groups such as the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, the Nature Society Singapore, The Astronomical Society of Singapore (TASOS), and the Sports Fishing Association (Singapore) that needs the blessing of the National Environment Agency (NEA). Guided tours and walks would often include a landfill tour. The tour which is interesting in that it introduces various aspects of the landfill including its history, as well as a bus tour around the landfill and the receiving station where waste incinerated at one of the three incinerators on the mainland is transferred from barges to tipper trucks which carry the waste to the landfill site. More information on Pulau Semakau, activities on Pulau Semakau and the landfill at the NEA website can be found at this link (Landfill Brochure) and also on this link link (Semakau Landfill).

One of the cells of the landfill that has been filled up.

The southernmost point of Singapore that the public has access to is at the end of a bund that contains a lagoon that will be used for phase 2 of the landfill when all the cells in phase 1 have been used.

The view from the bund southwest towards Pulau Pawai and Pulau Senang which is a live-firing area.

Part of the visit also included a drive through of the receiving station where incinerated waste from the mainland’s rubbish incinerators are transferred from barges onto tipper trucks.

The boat back and with the receiving station in the background.





The sun sets over the rail corridor

21 07 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weapons of rail destruction being put in place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scene just north of the crossing.

The northernmost semaphore signal for the crossing in Singapore.

The last trolley on the tracks?

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

Sungei Mandai Besar.

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

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

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

The northernmost stretch of the corridor.

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

Dismantling work that was already in evidence.

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

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

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

A track back into the colours of the setting sun.

A final look south towards Kranji Road.

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

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


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

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

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






A lost world in Lim Chu Kang

19 07 2011

Deep within a world that much of Singapore has lost lies a reminder of that life we once had, a life of carefree days spent by the sea, and quiet nights gazing at the stars. It is a world that for most, doesn’t exist anymore, one that many will find hard to go back to. That reminder is in the form of the former property of the late lawyer Howard Edmund Cashin which includes an expansive garden by the sea and an incredible house built on a pier like structure out over the mud flats and mangroves that still dominate the north-western coastline of Singapore. The house which has been left vacant shortly after Mr. Cashin’s passing in 2009, is one that reminds me of a time when escapes by the then remote, quiet and idyllic coastlines – many of which have been lost to land reclamation, were fashionable, as was living in remote locations by the sea. It reminds me of my own carefree days in the sun, accompanied by the sand and the sea in places that I will never be able to go back to, when Singapore was a much gentler place.

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

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 house, named as “The Pier” by the Cashins, served as Mr Cashin’s home for many years. Based on newspaper articles from the Straits Times, the Cashins, Howard and his wife Gillian, had moved in after the war, building a house over a pier that is significant from the perspective of the landings of the Japanese Imperial Army’s 5th Division along the north-western coastline in the dark days of February 1942 that led to the fall of Singapore. It was apparently at the pier that had stood there that the Japanese had out-fought the Australian 22nd Brigade who had put up a valiant fight inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and established a foothold. In the battle that was fought over the night of the 7th and the 8th of February, some 360 Australian troops are thought to have lost their lives in the same plot of land based on the article. The Japanese themselves had later erected a war shrine in the plot of land – something that Mr Cashin reportedly had trouble finding workmen who were willing to demolish it after the war.

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.

A view of The Pier from the expansive gardens.

A view of the gardens.

One of the things I was able to find out from N. Sivasothi or Siva who was kind enough to invite me to accompany him in his recce of the mangroves (see my previous post), was that a regular visitor to the Cashins was the Sultan of Johor (the late father of the current Sultan) who would come by on his boat across the Straits of Johor and drop in for tea. I guess that again is a reminder of gentler times, times when borders did not really exist both physically and also in the minds of many who lived on either side of the Causeway.

The Pier.

A look through the gates ….

While that gentler world has since been lost, we will still have at least The Pier that is left to remind us of it. The Pier which now lies vacant and its ownership has been passed on to the Singapore Land Authority, is not something that we would be saying goodbye to (as is often the case with many abandoned homes which eventually fall into decay). Siva was good enough to share some comforting news on its future, saying that it would see future use as a field station. I know that I can now look forward to going back from time to time, not to a place that I would have once known, but to a world that takes me back to those places that I did know that now remain only in my dreams 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 (as seen at the 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.








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