Light in the darkness after the storm, 6.41 am, Lower Seletar Reservoir, 28 May 2014.
Light in the darkness after the storm, 6.41 am, Lower Seletar Reservoir, 28 May 2014.
Together with several jalan-jalan kaki, I set off on a Sunday morning from Khatib MRT Station in search of a lost countryside. The area in which we sought to find that lost world, is one, that in more recent times has been known to us as Nee Soon and Ulu Sembawang. It was a part of Singapore that I first became acquainted with it in my childhood back in the early 1970s, when an area of rural settlements and village schools that were interspersed with poultry, pig and vegetable farms that awaited discovery along its many minor roads. It was also an area where the British military did leave much in terms of evidence of their former presence.
Fed by the waters of several rivers that spilled out into the Straits of Johor or Selat Tebrau, which included Sungei Seletar and its tributaries, Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and its tributaries and Sungei Sembawang, the area was to first attract gambier and pepper plantations in the mid 1800 with which came the first settlements. As with other plantation rich riverine areas of Singapore, the area attracted many Teochew immigrants, becoming one of several Teochew heartlands found across rural Singapore. Pineapple and rubber were to replace gambier and pepper in the 1900s – when the association with the likes of Bukit Sembawang and Lim Nee Soon, names which are now synonymous with the area, was to start.
Much has changed since the days of Chan Ah Lak’s gambier and pepper plantations – for which the area was originally known as Chan Chu Kang, the days of Lim Nee Soon’s pineapple and rubber cultivation and processing exploits, and even from the days when I made my first visits to the area. There are however, parts of it that in which some semblance of the countryside that did once exist can be found, parts where one can quite easily find that much needed escape from the concrete and overly manicured world that now dominates the island.
One of two places where those reminders can be found is the area around Bah Soon Pah Road. The road, strange as it may seem, is in fact named after Lim Nee Soon – Bah Soon having been a nickname stemming from him being a Straits Born Chinese or “Baba”. These days, the truncated Bah Soon Pah Road, is still an area that is very much associated with agriculture, being an area that is at the heart of the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority’s (AVA) efforts to promote agrotechnology in Singapore. Playing host to the Nee Soon Agrotechnology Park, there are several farms to be found along the road, including one in which hydroponic vegetables for the local market are cultivated.
An interesting sight along Bah Soon Pah Road is the building that now houses the AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre. The building – a huge bungalow built on stilts, in a style that resembles the “black and white” houses that the British built to house their administrators and senior military men and their families, probably built in the early 1900s with the arrival of the pineapple and rubber plantations, is in fact a physical link to Lim Nee Soon’s association with the area. Sitting atop a small hill – you do get a magnificent view of it from a distance from Yishun Avenue 1, the grand bungalow was I have been advised, a former residence of the assistant manager of Lim Nee Soon’s plantation, thus providing a link to a past that might otherwise have been forgotten.
From the west end of Bah Soon Pah Road, we turned north at Sembawang Road – once named Seletar Road. While Seletar today is the area where the former Seletar Airbase, now Seletar Aerospace Park is, Seletar did once refer to a large swathe of land in the north in, particularly so in the days before the airbase was built. The name Seletar is associated the Orang Seletar who inhabited the Straits of Johor, Selat Tebrau, a group of the sea dwellers around the coast and river mouths of northern Singapore and southern Johor from the days before Raffles staked the East India Company’s claim to Singapore. Seletar is a word that is thought to have been derived from the Malay word for strait or selat. Seletar Road, which would have brought travellers on the road to the Naval Base, and to Seletar Pier right at its end, was renamed Sembawang Road in 1939 so as to avoid confusion to road users headed to Seletar Airbase (then RAF Seletar) which lay well to its east.
The drive down Sembawang Road, up to perhaps the early 1980s, was one that did take you through some wonderful countryside we no longer see anymore. One of my first and memorable trips down the road was in a bus filled with my schoolmates – which turned out to be annual affair whilst I was in primary school. The destination was Sembawang School off Jalan Mata Ayer. where we would be bused to, to support the school’s football team when they played in the finals of the North Zone Primary Schools competition.
The school, the site of which is now occupied by a condominium Euphony Gardens, would be remembered for its single storey buildings – commonly seen in Singapore’s rural areas, as it would be for its football field. The field did somehow seem to have been laid on an incline, a suspicion that was to be confirmed by the difficulty the referee had in placing the ball and preventing it from rolling, when for a penalty kick was awarded during one of the matches.
The walk from Bah Soon Pah Road to Jalan Mata Ayer, did take us past two military camps. One, Khatib Camp as we know it today, is a more recent addition to the landscape. It would probably be of interest to some, that the original Khatib Camp was one used by the Malaysian military, housing the Tentera Laut Di-Raja Malaysia (TLMD) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) training school KD Pelandok from 1971 to 1980 and was known as Kem Khatib. The Malaysian association with it started in 1964 when it was first set up to house a Malaysian infantry battalion. This came at a time when Singapore was a part of Malaysia.
Apparently KD Pelandok was where the RMN, who in fact maintained their main base at Woodlands in Singapore until 1979, first carried out their own training of naval officers. Prior to this, naval officers had been sent to the UK to be trained. The camp was returned to Singapore on 2 February 1982, after the training school was shifted to the RMN’s main naval base in Lumut. A new Khatib Camp, now the home of the SAF’s Artillery, was built on the site and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) moved into it in 1983.
One of the things I remember about the new Khatib Camp in its early days was this helmet shaped roof of its sentry post. Khatib Camp in its early days also housed the SAF Boys School, which later became the SAF Education Centre (SAFEC). The school provided a scheme in which ‘N’-level certificate holders could continue their education fully paid to allow them to complete their ‘O’-levels, after which students would be have to serve a six-year bond out with the SAF. In more recent time, Khatib Camp has been made into one of the centres where NSmen (reservists) would take their annual fitness tests, the IPPT. It is also where the dreaded Remedial Training (RT) programmes are conducted for those who fail to pass the IPPT.
Across from Khatib Camp, is Dieppe Barracks. Built originally to house British military units, it is now used by the SAF’s HQ Guards, and is one the last former British army camps to retain the word “barracks” in its name – a reminder of its association with the British forces, and also the New Zealand forces. It housed the 1st Battalion of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment from 1971 to 1989 leaving a distinctly New Zealand flavour on the area as well as in the areas of Sembawang up north. This was as part of the protection force first under the ANZUK arrangements that followed the British pullout in 1971. With the Australian forces pulling out in the mid 1970s, the New Zealanders stayed on as the New Zealand Force South East Asia (NZ Force SEA). One of the things that was hard not to miss on the grounds of the barracks was how different the obstacle course in the open field in the north of the barrack grounds looked from those we did see in the SAF camps then.
Just north of Dieppe is where Jalan Mata Ayer can be found (where the school with the inclined football field was). The name “Mata Ayer” is apparently a reference to the source of the now quite well-known Sembawang Hot Springs. The once rural road led to a village called Kampong Mata Ayer, also known as Kampong Ayer Panas, close to the area where the hot spring, now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp, is.
Continuing north along the road, there are several clusters of shophouses across the road from where Yishun New Town has come up. Several shops here do in fact have their origins in the villages of the area. One well known business is a traditional Teochew bakery, Gin Thye Cake Maker. Specialising in Teochew pastries, the bakery goes back to 1964 when Mdm. Ang Siew Geck started it in her village home at Bah Soon Pah Road. Described by The Straits Times as the Last of the Teochew bakeries, its biscuits are a popular choice amongst its customers. You would also be able to spot traditional wedding baskets lined up at the top of one of the shelves. The baskets are used by the bakery to deliver traditional sweets – as might have once been the case, for weddings.
Not far up from the shophouses, we come to the area where a relatively new Chong Pang Camp is. The camp sits on what once was a very picturesque part of Singapore, Ulu Sembawang. What was visible of the area from Sembawang Road were the fishing ponds and the lush greenery that lay beyond them. The greenery did obscure an area that did lie beyond it, that was particularly rich in bird life and was up to the 1990s, a popular area for birding activities.
It was an area that we did once get a wonderful view of from Jalan Ulu Sembawang, a road that rose up from close to the back of the then Seletaris bottling plant at its junction with Sembawang Road towards another rural area of villages and farms. The view, from a stretch of the road that ran along a ridge, was what my father did describe as being the most scenic in Singapore that looked across a rolling landscape of vegetable farms for almost as far as the eye could see. Jalan Ulu Sembawang was also one of the roads that led to Lorong Gambas in the Mandai area – an area many who did National Service would remember it as a training area that was used up to perhaps the 1990s.
A stop along the way that we did spend some time at was the hot springs, around which there seems now to be much superstition. The spring, which was discovered by a municipal ranger on the property of a Seah Eng Keong in 1908. Seah Eng Keong was the son of gambier and pepper plantation owner Mr Seah Eu Chin who I understand from Claire Leow, one half of the female duo who maintains All Things Bukit Brown and who joined us on the walk, also owned gambier and pepper plantations in the area. Seah Eu Chin would also be well known as being the founder of the Ngee Ann Kongsi.
The spring water was over the years, bottled in various ways and under various names, first by Mr Seah, and then by Fraser and Neave (F&N) from 1921. One of the names its was bottled as was Zombun which was, on the evidence of a newspaper article, a source of a joke – with waiters referring to “Air Zombun” as a similar sounding “Air Jamban” or water from the toilet in Malay.
Bottling was to be disrupted by the war – the Japanese, known for their fondness for thermal baths, were said to have built such baths at the hot springs – the water, which flows out at around 66 degrees Celcius, with its strong sulphur content (which is evident from the unmistakable smell you would be able to get of it), is thought to have curative properties – especially for skin and rheumatic conditions. It’s flow was disrupted by allied bombing in November 1944 and it was only in 1967 that F&N started re-bottling the water under a subsidiary Semangat Ayer Limited using the brand name Seletaris (now the name of a condominium that sits on the site of the plant).
While it did remain the property of F&N, many were known to have bathed at the spring before 1967 and also again after the plant was closed in the mid 1980s, when its land was acquired by the government. The spring – with water now running out of pipes and taps, in now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp – which initially meant that it was closed to the public. Since May 2002 however, after petitions were submitted to the authorities, the spring has been opened to the public. Access to the spring is now through a fenced pathway that cuts into the camp’s grounds. A warning is scribbled on the red brick structure that surrounds a surviving well that speaks of a curse – that anyone who vandalises the hot spring will be the subject of a curse.
From the spring and Jalan Ulu Sembawang, now a stub that leads to a wooded area where development doesn’t seem very far away – an international school is already being built there, we can to the end of the adventure. While it is sad to see how another place in Singapore which holds the memories of the gentle world I once enjoyed as a child has been transformed into another place I struggle to connect with; I did at least manage to find a few things that does, in some way remind of that old world that I miss. Developments in the area are however taking off at a furious pace and with the construction of elevated portion of the North-South Expressway that is due to start next year and will have a significant impact on the area’s landscape; it may not be long before it does become another place of beauty that we have abandoned in favour of a cold and overly manicured landscape in which there will be little left, except for “heritage” markers, to remind us of what it did once mean to us.
Long abandoned by its erstwhile companions, the building that served as the former Nee Soon Post Office had stood for many years alone and almost forgotten. The bustling villages that once occupied an area that was dominated by a huge rubber factory for which it was built to serve are long gone, leaving the post office and a few other buildings behind to serve as an only reminder of what had once been. At the building, the only evidence of its former use is found in the post office boxes (P.O. Boxes) at an extension to its right and a post box painted in the bright and unmistakeable colours of the Telecommunication Authority which once ran the post offices.
It wasn’t too long ago when hoardings were erected around the building, after which the building’s roof came off. With the recent demolition of the former Jalan Kayu Post Office building, there was some concern that the building was about to suffer a similar fate. A sign posted on the hoardings did however serve to provide reassurance that the building wasn’t being demolished, but rather, it was about to go to the dogs – literally! A veterinary clinic had taken over the premises for its use.
The renovation and refurbishment of the former post office is now almost complete. The freshly painted building now stands with a new extension added to its left. The two reminders of the building’s previous use, the post box and the P.O. Boxes can still be seen – the P.O. Boxes have been relocated to the new extension as the extension to the right at which they were located has been torn down. While the P.O. Boxes do bear the finish that they were left with, the post box will look very new with a fresh coat of paint – something I wish that wasn’t done as the worn and faded look it was left in did give the appearance of a forgotten memory that had been frozen in time.
While it would have been nice to see what certainly is a building which stands as one of the only reminders of a world that once was, it is good to see that some use has been found that will allow the building to be maintained – is always difficult in a Singapore that is quick to abandon its past and where conservation has more often than not to pay for itself, to find use in a way that is ideal. That in it going to the dogs does help to keep the building standing, may perhaps be not such a bad thing after all.
One of my favourite roads to take a journey on in Singapore is a stretch of Mandai Road that has got to be one of the more gorgeous drives in Singapore. It is a stretch that takes you past an area that is reminiscent of an older world at its junction with Sembawang road, around a bend where the road starts to rise northwards to an area where a short stretch of it runs along a body of water that in reflecting the colours of the setting sun takes on the appearance of a magical world. It is a drive I have enjoyed for four decades now – my first encounters with the stretch dating back to the end of the 1960s when the road was diverted around what had been a newly expanded body of water – what then was Seletar Reservoir (now Upper Seletar Reservoir). Those first encounters had been ones that would have involved a visit to the area around the large dam that contributed to the reservoir’s expansion – then a manicured area that offered some wonderful views of the reservoir not just from the top of the 20 metre high dam, but also the panorama one got of it from the top of a newly constructed lookout tower which still stands today.
The area which later was developed into a park and the expanded reservoir, was opened by HRH Princess Alexandra in August 1969. The work to expand of the capacity reservoir which traces it origins back to the 1920s, resulted in an increase in its capacity from a previous expansion in 1940 by some 35 times, giving the northern fringe of Singapore’s Central Catchment Reserve a large and very picturesque body of water. This was made possible by the erection of a larger dam across the Seletar valley which required a part of Mandai Road to be diverted. The reservoir started its life as a temporary source of water supply which was developed out of an abandoned effort in the 1920s to build a third impounding reservoir on the island. Work on that was halted when it became apparent that it was feasible to draw on the abundant sources of water across the Straits in Southern Johor with pipelines to feed much-needed resource integrated into the construction of the Causeway. It was in 1940 that the reservoir was made a permanent one having its capacity expanded to feed the island’s growing population.
The work which commenced in 1967 to expand the reservoir, also allowed its position on the northern fringe the Central Catchment Reserve to be exploited to provide a recreational area around it with access to large parts of it possible by road. Besides the park with its now iconic tower that was constructed, plans were also drawn up to use an area to the north-west of the reservoir for a zoological gardens what is today the highly acclaimed Singapore Zoo.
It is for the climbs up the lookout tower that I would look forward most to on my early visits to the area, my first visit being in October 1969 on the evidence of photographs that I have taken of my sister and me. It wasn’t however only the tower that occupied me during my visits to the park – the slope of the dam was a constant source of delight with the grasshoppers that seemed to thrive in the grass that lined the slope. The slope – or rather the road that ran down from the top of the dam where the tower is along the slop of the dam was also where I once, in the foolishness of youth, responded to a dare to go down the road on my roller-skates. Finding myself gaining momentum after setting off, it was probably fortunate that I decided not to go through with the dare and managed to pull out of it by turning into a turn-off not far from the top of the slope. Sliding across the rough surface as I lost my balance in turning off at speed, I was bloodied and bruised with abrasions that ran down the entire length of my right leg and a little embarrassed, but quite thankful that I had decided not to go through with the dare.
The park today is one that I still frequent, not so much for the tower which does still somehow fascinate me, but for the escape it offers from the concrete world that I find myself now surrounded by. And, in those escapes that I take, it is comforting to find that in a Singapore where the relentless winds of change have rendered many places of my childhood for which I had a fondness for unrecognisable, the area beneath the changes it has seen in the four decades that have passed, is a face from that world that I still am able to see.
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 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.
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.
I just loved the old two storey post office buildings that were found all over Singapore when I was growing up. With a compound where one could park the car, it made it easy to “run in” to the post office for whatever stamps you might need. These were unlike the post offices of today, nestled in an obscure corner of a crowded town centre or on the hard to access upper floor of a shopping complex. I suppose there are those SAM self service machines which does make it convenient to buy a self-adhesive stamp label and post a letter, but nothing actually beats buying a stamp which would come out of a book and wetting it on a damp sponge placed in a little container of water at the counter, or even licking it, before getting it onto the envelope.
Many of the old post office buildings have since disappeared. Of the few that have been left standing – what comes to mind are the ones at Killiney Road and Alexandra Roads are still used as post offices. There is also the former Nee Soon Post Office building, now disused, which still stands along Mandai Road, close to the junction with Sembawang / Upper Thomson Roads.
Some of the post office buildings were built with an upper floor to serve a purpose: while the ground floor served as the post office proper, the upper floor given to serve as the Postmaster and his family’s quarters. A childhood friend whose father had been the Postmaster at the Thomson Road Post Office once related a story of how visitors to the post office were sometimes greeted by the strange sight of bean sprouts strewn across the car park. To get quickly through the tedious chore of plucking the roots off the huge bag of bean sprouts, which his mother often had him and his brother do, they would discard a portion of the bean sprouts out of the kitchen window into the car park!
The former Nee Soon Post Office building that still stands provides us with some reminders of a time when it served Nee Soon village, dominated by the rubber factory with a zinc sheet exterior painted in a rusty red, which was once owned by Lim Nee Soon: an orange and white post box of another era, old PO Boxes built into a wall … I am not sure what the future holds for the building, but I do hope it would always be there, to serve as a reminder of the old Post Offices that I so loved.