In search of angels in the City of Angels

24 04 2011

Bangkok, the City of Angels, is a city that has always managed to surprise me with a delightful find every time I have the time to wander around it. So it was to be on my last visit there recently, in which I was able to seek out not one, but two beautiful houses of worship, both Catholic, along the Chao Phraya River. The first, off Charoen Krung (New Road), which I understand is the first paved road in Thailand, is set amongst some delightful pieces of European style buildings in the old Farang Quarter of Bangkok, far, as it seemed to be; from the hustle and bustle that Bangkok has come to be associated with. The house of worship is the Assumption Cathedral, built in 1910 with an Romanesque fashioned red brick exterior with twin towers and a centre rose window, featuring an elaborately gorgeous Rococo style interior that is unusual as churches in this part of the world go.

The gorgeous Rococo style interior of the Assumption Cathedral.

The rose window see from the interior.

The Romanesque red brick exterior of the cathedral.

Another view of the Rococo interior of the Cathedral.

Stained glass panels inside the Cathedral.

Around the square where the Cathedral is are some other wonderful examples of European style architecture, the Venetian style East Asiatic Company building by the river being one, complete with a Venetian style skyway. Another notable building is the Renaissance style Catholic Centre, also by the river, from which I chanced upon the Archbishop Emeritus of Bangkok, Michael Michai Cardinal Kitbunchu emerging. The area around the Cathedral also contains the Assumption College, the Assumption Convent, the Catholic Mission and several other buildings.

The East Asiatic Company building as seen from the river.

The East Asiatic Company building as seen from the side.

Arches along the building's side.

A skyway between buildings.

The Renaissance style Catholic Centre by the river.

Chanced upon His Grace, Michael Michai Cardinal Kitbunchu, Archbishop Emeritus of Bangkok emerging from the Catholic Centre.

The Assumption Convent.

From the area where the Cathedral is, I continued further north along the river. This took me past the Central Post Office and about a kilometre up Charoen Krung, I came to the Neo Gothic style Holy Rosary Church, referred to locally as Wat Kalawar, after the Thai word for Calvary. The church had its origins in the Portuguese who settled in Bangkok, and was built originally in the late 1700s, and one that was rebuilt at the end of the 1800s, and now catering to the Vietnamese and Cambodian community. The church’s interior has been wonderfully restored over the years and features a gilded ceiling and some magnificent Romanesque stained glass. Certainly, the search for angels in the City of Angels, was one that yielded not just a few angels, but some gems of churches in a city that is perhaps better known for its beautiful Buddhist temples, gems that on the evidence of what I had seen, are some of the best to be found in South East Asia.

I continued north up Charoen Krung ...

... past the Central Post Office ...

... coming to another Catholic church by the river, the Holy Rosary Church, built originally by the Portuguese.

The façade of the Holy Rosary Church.

Where, I did find an angel, in the form of a holy water font.

The interior of the church.

Another view of the interior.

The church features some wonderful Romanesque style stained glass panels.





The last memories of the rural Singapore of old

17 01 2011

I must admit that there was a time when I would have been reluctant to set foot in a kampung (village) in Singapore being very much the urban kid that I was growing up in the new highrise village of Toa Payoh. Back in the early days of Toa Payoh, much of Singapore still lived in the attap and zinc roofed wooden houses set in the densely packed villages all over the rural parts of the island. I had myself, had several experiences of a kampung in my early days, having been made to visit a so-called “sworn-sister” of my maternal grandmother at least once every Chinese New Year when we would spend most of the second day at the chicken farm in Punggol which she and her husband had in their care.

Despite my reluctance to visit kampungs in my early childhood, kampung days were never far away with regular visits to one in Punggol.

The visits to Punggol would inevitably mean that I would have to bear a few hours of boredom, stuck in the confines of what served as the living and dining room of the house with the simple furnishings of a formica topped folding table, a few stools, a food cabinet, two armchairs, and a small coffee table to keep me company. All there was to break the monotony of the room would be the sound of the Rediffusion speaker breaking the relative silence of the room, as I impatiently waited for one of my parents to make an appearance. The great outdoors where my parents would invariably spend the first part of the visits at wasn’t something that I was exactly enamoured with, particularly the fresh country air that would be laced with the smells that came from the rows of chicken coops nearby, a mixture of the smell of chicken feed and chicken droppings, with that of the generous amounts of natural fertiliser that would be used on the numerous plots of vegetables growing around. The fascination that I had with some of the livestock certainly wouldn’t have been enough to presuade me to move from my perch on one of the stools, let alone step across the threshold to join my parents in admiring the ripening array of tropical fruits that awaited their harvest outside.

It certainly has been a long time since I last took in the sights of zinc roofed wooden house in Singapore.

Not all kampungs are made the same of course, and I certainly, as a casual visitor, appreciated some of the coastal villages a lot more than I did the one I regularly visited at Punggol. My earliest encounters with the villages by the seaside would have been at Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuruh in my very early years, passing through on my hoildays around the Tanah Merah and Mata Ikan area. It only much later in life that I got to wander around some of them in earnest, with one on our northern shoreline just east of the Mata Jetty at the end of Sembawang Road, being one that I would visit often, Kampung Tanjong Irau. The coastal villages were usually more pleasing to the eyes, and it was always nice to encounter the often colourful sight of fishing boats ashore and fishing nets strung up to be mended. This sight would often be accompanied by the whiff of the sea that would be mixed with the smells left on the nets that the catch the nets had held, carried by the gentle breeze from the sea.

The smell of fishing nets was something to look forward to during visits in my childhood to the coastal villages which I seemed to enjoy more.

It was in the latter part of the 1980s that I started to lose touch with the kampungs that I knew, as the busy schedule of my tertiary education and National Service, as well as time spent away from Singapore, took me away from the routines that occupied my childhood. Distracted by what was going on in my life then and the years of my career, the opportunity to say goodbye to the villages of my youth had soon passed me by, as it was during that time that, one by one, the villages that had been very much a part of Singapore’s rural landscape started to disappear as modernisation in Singapore caught up with them. My grandmother’s “sworn-sister” had during that time, been forced to abandon the lifestyle she had known all her life and resettled in Ang Mo Kio, just a stone’s throw from where I lived.

Zinc roofs were once common all over rural Singapore and started to disappear with the wave of urbanisation that swept through rural Singapore in the 1980s.

It was only well into the arrival of the new century that I realised that there had been one village, Kampung Lorong Buangkok, that had somehow resisted the tide of development that had swept through the island and it was in reading a New York Times article “Singapore Prepares to Gobble Up Its Last Village” in early 2009 that I had thought of having a look at what has been touted as the last remaining village on mainland Singapore. Having on many occasions cycled through the area during my teenage years, the village was actually tucked away in an area that was familiar to me, although it was the grounds of the road that led up to the mental hospital, Woodbridge Hospital, named after the main access road to the area, Jalan Woodbridge, that I took more notice of (Jalan Woodbridge has in the intervening years been renamed Gerald Drive in an effort by property developers to avoid any association housing developments in the area could have with the mental hospital (which has since moved to nearby Hougang and renamed as the Institute of Mental Health), but it wasn’t until the National Library Board organised a visit to the kampung recently that I got to have my look around.

The area around Gerald Drive bear very little resemblance to the road that I had once cycled around when it was called Jalan Woodbridge.

An old road sign with the old four digit postal code.

The visit was certainly one that was well worth the while, rather than having to explore the are on my own as besides navigating through the labyrinth that is the village, the guide, Mr Bill Gee, was able to also provide some information on the village as well. The village as it currently stands, sits on a one and a third hectare plot of land (equivalent to the size of three football fields) which is owned by a Ms Sng Mui Hong, a 57 year old resident of the village. Ms Sng had inherited the land from her father who had bought the land when she was three (in 1956), constructing a village which at its height occupied an area roughly twice its current size with 40 households living on it. Today, Ms Sng rents the zinc roofed housing units out to the 28 households that remain, keeping rents at levels that make the rents (by a long way) the cheapest on the island at between S$6.50 to S$30 (excluding electricity and water).

An address plate at a house along Lorong Buangkok where the last village on mainland Singapore stands.

A Chinese home at the entrance to the last village.

Lorong Buangkok as it looks today.

A well photograph sign points the way to the Surau (Muslim Prayer Room).

It certainly felt surreal walking through the kampung, especially in the context of what Singapore has become. The village did appear very much as if time has left it behind, as I weaved my way through the maze of wooden houses, each with a distinct character and colour. The houses were certainly typical of the kampung houses of old, with cemented floors and a grilled gap left between the zinc roofs and the exterior walls of wood to provide ventilation. Wood is used as a structural building material not just because that it is a traditional material, but also as the use of brick and mortar would render the houses too heavy to be supported by the soft muddy ground that lies below due to the area having once been a swamp which was fed by a creek upstream of Sungei Punggol, which my mother had been familiar with in her own childhood, as having lived at the sixth mile area of Upper Serangoon Road not far away, it was where as she would recall, “my father would jump into, not having a care in the world for the possible dangers that the waters held”, stopping the practice only after a mangrove snake had been spotted on one of their forays into the creek. There certainly still is some evidence of what was a brackish water swamp: mud lobster mounds and the red-brown petals of the flowers of the Sea Hibiscus tree are clearly visible on the ground in the area of the village just by what is now a canalised Sungei Punggol. Being built in a low-lying area where a swamp had formed, the village is also one that is prone to flooding, as the evidence – a flood level marker and a signboard providing information on days when there is a risk of flooding at road in from the main road, across from the well photographed sign giving directions to the village’s Surau (a Muslim prayer room), does suggest.

Mud Lobster mounds are clearly visible in the area near the canalised Sungei Punggol, bearing testament to the swamp that existed in the area.

The area is prone to flooding. A PUB signboard is used to inform villagers of days on which flooding is likely to occur.

A flood level marker is seen in the drain close to the PUB signboard.

In the vicinity of the village near where the flood level marker is, is the site of the former SILRA Home (a home for ex-Leprosy patients run by the SIngapore Leprosy Relief Association – hence SILRA) along Lorong Buangkok, of which the entrance remains with a wall on which the faint words “SILRA HOME” can be made out. The home moved to Buangkok View in 2004.

A wall is all that remains of the entrance to the former SILRA Home along Lorong Buangkok.

Many of the Malay and Chinese residents have lived in the village for well over forty years, with many not wanting to move out having been used to the laid back lifestyle and access to open spaces which moving into the modern suburbia would rob them of. It was certainly nice to encounter some of the villagers, who readily smiled at the curious group of visitors that had descended on the village breaking the calm and peace of the village, of whom I am sure they get too many of as interest in the last kampung has increased with all the publicity it has received in recent years. Peaceful the kampung certainly was compared to my first memories of the kampung in Punggol, where the were the sounds of the clucking of hens, the crowing of roosters, the quacking of ducks, the snorting and grunting of pigs and the barking of dogs never seemed to cease. It was in this sea of sounds that one which I would never forget would pierce through each evening – the unmistakable and shirll crescendo that was the chorus of pigs squealing as if they might have been singing for their supper.

The kampung's Surau.

The wooden houses each have a character of their own, painted in the different colours that add a certain charm to the village.

Other sights around Kampung Lorong Buangkok …

Modern times I guess have caught up with the last kampung - I mentioned my parents experience being the first in Kampong Chia Heng to own a TV in a previous post - back then, doors were unlocked and everyone in the village could walk into the living room to have a curious glance at the TV set.

A hinge for a gate ...

Clothes pegs on a laundry line.

A view through a set of bamboo blinds ...

A hibiscus in full bloom.

Ornamental flags flapping in the wind.

A resident on a bicycle.

Malay residents of the kampung.

The star of the kampung - a star made by Jamil Kamsah, a resident of the kampung.

A hurricane lamp ...

and another ...

One of the last places in Singapore to have cables overhead ...

A fallen fruit from a Starfruit tree ...

A Buddha statue.





Wonderland and the thrill of Bangkok

6 01 2011

I guess the school of thrills for me was the roller coaster of the wonderful Wonderland Amusement Park in Singapore, back in my wonderful childhood in the Singapore of the 1970s. Then, Wonderland was the world to me and the roller coaster was where I spent most of my time at whenever I succeeded in pestering my mother to take me there. Wonderland offered no end of fun, and besides the roller coaster, I could also remember the kiddie train that went round a track and the Ovaltine cups that span around – ones which could be made to spin faster by turning a wheel in the centre of the cup (which I did very often, much to my younger sister’s discomfort).

A photo in the National Archives collection of Wonderland under construction in 1969 (source: National Archives of Singapore's online catalogue).

A view of Wonderland in 1970 with the tracks of my favourite roller coaster (source: National Archives of Singapore's online catalogue).

The park had opened in 1969, just in time for me to have the many thrills and spills as I sought as a primary school boy. It was a time when interest in the “Worlds” of Singapore was waning and Singapore needed a new amusement park to bring fun to its children. The park, built on reclaimed land that had once been part of the old Kallang Airport, in its time hosted many corporate events as well, probably being one of the first places which saw family days being held in Singapore. It was a place that I enjoyed until I guess I outgrew the rides as I entered secondary school in the early 1980s and it was after this, in 1984, that an accident occurred in which planes fell off a merry-go-round injuring 16 people – the first accident in my memory what had been 15 years of accident free operation up to that point in time. I can’t quite remember when and what had shut the park, but based on newspaper archives, the park closed in 1988 to make way for the large open air carpark meant to serve the Kallang Indoor Stadium, a car park which is still with us today, bearing nothing to remind us of the good old amusement park.

The merry-go-round of planes which also a favourite. An accident in 1984 in which planes fell off resulted in 16 injuries (source: National Archives of Singapore's online catalogue).

The Ovaltine cups were evil!

News on the Indoor Stadium's opening in 1989.

By that time, my idea of thrills had evolved and looking for something more than what Wonderland offered, I was soon to find that in Bangkok. It was in the year of the accident (and around the time of it) that while in the Thai capital, I came to hear of a water themed amusement park (possibly the first water themed park in South-East Asia and one that featured a wave pool), some 20 kilometres outside of Bangkok, Siam Park. The park, which had opened some 4 years before, featured a looping roller-coaster, the Loop-the-Loop, something that had been unheard of in this part of the world. Without knowing a word of Thai, I bravely set out on the public transport system (being on a shoestring) that carried me over the dusty streets out of Bangkok, and there I soon was, staring in awe at what was in fact South-East Asia’s very first looping roller coaster.

South-East Asia's first looping roller coaster at Siam Park, outside Bangkok, in 1984.

My first ride wasn’t actually the best of experiences. Getting into the prime front row seat, I was soon locked in by the safety bar and looking forward to what was surely going to be the ride of my life. In all the excitement, I had somehow forgotten (as well as not being reminded by the staff on hand) to remove my glasses and was soon caught up in the anticipation of the ride as the roller coaster rode up on end of the rail and prepared for its descent. Down it quickly went amidst a chorus of screams, up the loop, as I braced myself for what would be my first heads-down roller coaster experience. That feeling that came with the moment the world turned upside down I still remember very well, with my heart feeling as if it had fallen out of my chest. The moment that happened, I felt my glasses falling as well, and that being something that I would have been at a lost without (being shortsighted and not having a spare pair on me), I shot my arms out, managing to somehow grab my glasses out of the air, relying perhaps on the reflexes that my early days playing football as a goalkeeper had developed in me. I had several more rides on the roller coaster, taking a break from it only to have the occasional dip in the wave pool, during which I made it a point to remove my glasses, and it was only at closing time that I made my way back into Bangkok, tired from the thrills and glad to have survived my first ever looping experience.





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

3 01 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Town Hall.

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

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

Another view of the High Court.

The Straits Trading Building (1907).

The Chartered Bank Building (1924).

The Mercantile Bank Building (1931).

The Perak Hydro Building (1930s).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tricycle outside a house in Concubine Lane.

More signs of life.

Windows on Concubine Lane.

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

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

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

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

A view from the window of the coffee shop.

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

The Sar Hor Fun stall at Kong Heng.





Architectural masterpieces of KL: The Railway Administration Building

28 12 2010

These days most would associate Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, affectionately referred to as KL, with some of the modern landmarks that have risen in a city that itself rose out of the confluence of the muddy Gombak and the Klang Rivers. KL is a city that I have been very fond of, visiting it on an annual basis since the 1970s when it took six hours on the old trunk road in the back of my father’s car. It is a city that I have long associated with food and shopping, usually ending up staying in budget accommodation off the main shopping belt of Bukit Bintang which also gave access to the wonderful street food in the Jalan Alor and Tong Shin Terrace areas.

Kuala Lumpur features some magnificent architectural masterpieces from the turn of the 20th Century including the Railway Administration Building which was completed in 1917, which is sadly now overshadowed by the new icons such as the Petronas Twin Towers.

It wasn’t until perhaps the 1990s that I started to notice some of the wonderful architectural masterpieces from the turn of the 20th Century, having had the independence to wander around some of its streets, such as the beautiful Sultan Abdul Samad building and Masjid Jamek, and using the trains as a means to travel to KL, who could not but notice the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and the magnificent Railway Administration Building just across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin from the station.

One architectural masterpeice, the KL Railway Station, seen through the arches of another, the Railway Administration Building (now the KTMB HQ) across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin. Both buildings feature Morrish influences and were designed by A.B. Hubback.

With much of the focus on the new icons of KL, less attention is now placed on these mainly Moorish architecture inspired buildings – the work of the Public Works Department, the PWD (which was incidentally led by the very able Mr Charles Edwin Spooner at the end of 19th Century, before he was appointed the General Manager of the FMS Railways in 1901 – thus having a hand in the Railway Buildings as well). The Masjid Jamek, as well as the two Railway Buildings built in the early part of the 20th Century were designed by an architect with the PWD, a Arthur Benison Hubback, who incidentally rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the British Army during the First World War, and had the good fortune of working under the architect of Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Arthur Charles Alfred Norman. Besides being responsible for some of the iconic architecture of KL Hubback also was responsible for works such as the Ipoh Railway Station and work in the sister colony of Hong Kong, the most notable work being the terminal station of the Kowloon to Canton Railway at Tsim Sha Tsui (which sadly was demolished in 1977, leaving only the Clock Tower, which now serves as a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui, behind).

The former Kowloon Railway seen during construction in 1914. It was demolished in 1977 with only the Clock Tower, now a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui, remaining. The station was designed by an architect with the Selangor PWD, A.B. Hubback who was responsible for some of the iconic buildings of Kuala Lumpur (source Wikipedia).

Tsim Sha Tsui's historic clock tower (1915) ... the last remnant of the Kowloon Railway Station.

The Railway Administration Building, now the Headquarters of KTM Berhad (KTMB), has been one that I had longed to visit for a long time, but somehow never got to in all those years passing through the Railway Station. It was one that I would always hold in awe, with its age browned façade dominated by moorish styled arches and domes. Based on the information plaque at the entrance to the compound, the building is a “fine example of Moorish architecture reflecting the Ottoman and Moghul glory of the 13th and 14th Centuries blended with Gothic and ancient Greek designs of the 14th Century. The ground floor is adorned with 97 large frontal Gothic arches and 4 smaller arches. The high and wide verandahs skirting the building create a cooling effect and are suitable for the constant high climatic temperatures in Malaysia. The first floor has 94 large arched windows of Gothic design and 4 circular arches of smaller size. The second floor has 171 Gothic arches and 4 large and 12 smaller circular arches. Five domes sit majestically on top of the building, each surrounded at four corners entwined columns. They are of orthodox Greek design typical in the 14th century. This historical building suffered serious damage twice in its lifetime, firstly during the Second World War when its North wing was bombed and secondly when the same wing on the second floor was gutted by fire in 14 November 1968.

The moorish inspired age-browned façade and the main central dome of the Railway Administration Building in KL.

Another view of the age-browned façade of the Railway Administration Building through one of the arches.

Stepping into the building for the very first time, I could not but be amazed by the sheer splendour of its Moorish inspired design. As the information plaque rightly describes the verandas, they are indeed cool and airy, and dominated by a wonderful row of Gothic styled arches that brings to mind those of the interiors of some of the magnificent Gothic cathedrals and churches of Europe and perhaps the Mosque of the Caliphs in Cordoba and to an extent CHIJMES in Singapore. Unfortunately, the upper floors of the building are out of bounds, being where the offices of KTMB are located and my exploration of the building was confined to the ground floor. One of the features that can be appreciated from the ground floor at the main entrance lobby of the building is the beautiful central staircase which spirals below the central dome of the building, featuring some wonderful wrought iron work on its banisters for which a visit to the building is certainly worthy of. If you are ever in KL, do take the time to visit this magnificent building, one that is often passed over for some of the more modern icons of a city that is in fact blessed with some wonderful architectural masterpieces, particularly those given by those highly talented colonial architects who played a big part in the infrastructure development not just of KL but in some of the other British colonies at the turn of the 20th century.

The central staircase below the central dome provides access to the upper floors of the building (which is out of bounds).

The central staircase.

A photograph in the hallway showing the building and the railway station.

The building also features some beautiful ironwork.

A window seen through one of the frontal arches.

A view across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin through one of the arches.

Magnificent gothic arches from the exterior corridors of the building.

A view of the Gothic arched corridor at the back of the building.

A broken part of the buildings cornice lying at the side of the building.

A view of the staircase at the wing of the building.

A semi-circular flight of steps at the wing of the building.

An old signal post on display at the front of the building.

The frontal arches.

In the gardens in front of the building.





The Bridge over the River Kwai

22 12 2010

It might have been because of the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”, that I have held a long fascination with bridges, having many doses of it throughout my early childhood. It was a fascination that was also fed by my regular encounters with the two railway bridges from my childhood journeys through the Bukit Timah area, and of those with the magnificent Anderson and Cavenagh Bridges that sets our Civic District apart from much of the rest of Singapore, and maybe by the picture of the red oxide coated Forth Rail Bridge on the back of a postcard that my mother had for much of my childhood displayed on her dresser. There were of course bridges of significance that I encountered in my diet of war inspired movies and novels that might also have fed that fascination: one being “A Bridge Too Far” over Arnhem that was the subject of Cornelius Ryan’s novel which was adapted by William Goldman for the movie of the same name; and the so-called “Bridge on the River Kwai”, part of the infamous Death Railway, that was made famous by the 1957 David Lean movie based on a novel entitled “Bridge Over the River Kwai” by French writer Pierre Boulle, which I had watched many times on TV.

Poster for the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai".

The bridge over the River Kwai in Dec 1984.

The bridge in 2006.

That I guess was what compelled me to visit the bridge that stands over the River Kwai today, or the River Mae Khlung as it should rightly have been (the river has since been renamed as the “Kwai Yai” for the tourists). The bridge that stands today isn’t the wooden bridge built in 1943 that was the subject of the movie, but a second more sturdy bridge of concrete and steel built by the Prisoners of War (POW) also in 1943. It stands as a powerful symbol of the pain, suffering and death that was inflicted on the POWs who were put to work on the infamous Siam to Burma rail supply line that the Japanese intended to use on their push towards India. Estimates vary but at least 100,000 POWs and labourers died in the construction of the railway due to the harsh conditions, starvation and malaria.

A view of the bridge from the far bank. The two straight-sided spans were transported from Japan after the end of the war as part of Japanese war reparations, to replace the two original arched spans which were brought over from Java by the Japanese which were destroyed.

Another view of the bridge.

Information plate on one of the replacement spans.

One of the original arched spans which the Japanese brought over from Java.

My first visit to the bridge which is about 5 kilometres out of Kanchanaburi , which is located 130 kilometres west of Bangkok was in December 1984 – back then I was struck by the surreal calm that taking a walk on the bridge provided despite the presence of the tourists (not the hordes that one encounters these days) and the vendors trying to hawk a few souvenirs. I did return some twenty years later – dismayed to find that the bridge had been overrun by hordes of tourists and the area now dominated by the tourist shops that have somehow destroyed the peace that I had first encountered in 1984. Still, taking a walk on the bridge provides a wonderful experience, and certainly once across the bridge, the far back does provide that sense of calm absent on the near side.

Taking a photograph of the bridge in 1984.

On the bridge in 2006.

Around the bridge, there is the River Kwae Bridge railway station which is certainly worth a visit. The station in fact provides an gateway for rail passengers coming from the south who can make a connection at Nakhon Pathom, and also directly from Bangkok. The line itself runs over part of the original Death Railway route to Nam Tok. The line which was assessed to be too poorly constructed to support commercial use was sold by the British in 1946 to Siam for a sum of ₤1.5M which included 65 locomotives, 1125 wagons and other stock, and revived in 1948. The train also runs through and stops at the town of Kanchanaburi.

Ticket counter at the River Kwai Bridge Station.

River Kwai Bridge Station.

An old steam locomotive (#719) on display at River Kwai Bridge Station.

Beyond the area where the bridge is, it makes sense to also pay a visit to one of the war museums to have a sense of what went on, as well as the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The museum I visited was the JEATH (Japan, England, Australia Thailand, England) War Museum, which is housed inside the grounds of the Wat Chai Chumphon temple and is built around huts meant to replicate those that the POWs had been housed in and contains graphic images showing the conditions the prisoners had lived in.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in 1984.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

Plaque at the entrance of the War Cemetery.

Plaque at the War Cemetery.

The JEATH War Museum.

Exhibit at the JEATH War Museum in 1984 with photographs of the bridge destroyed in 1945 by allied bombings.





The delightful suburb of Suresnes and the Bois de Boulogne

13 12 2010

Paris is a city that never ceases to delight me ever since I first set eyes on it in the summer of 1989 enroute to Padua. Besides being where some of my favourite monuments in the form of the Eiffel Tour, La Sainte-Chapelle, and the Notre Dame are; as well as where my favourite museum, the Musée d’Orsay is (which incidentally also contains my favourite work of art, Renoir’s “Bal au moulin de la Galette, Montmartre“), Paris is also where one of the most delightful suburbs I have visited, Suresnes, is located.

Looking down the Seine to the business district of La Défense from Suresnes.

It was in Suresnes that I found myself putting up in one Bastille Day and it was from there that I could quite easily catch a bus into Paris and take a Metro to the areas where the action was. I guess that is the wonderful thing about Suresnes with its location on the western fringe of the Bois de Boulogne, where it is situated close enough to Paris (being some 10 km or so out of Central Paris). What makes it wonderful is also that it is also just far away enough to offer a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, being just across the Seine from a huge wooded park, the Bois de Boulogne, which covers an area of some 8.5 square km. The Bois de Boulonge traces its history back to the ancient oak forest of Rouvray and became a park in 1852 by Napoleon III, being transformed into what it is today by the architect of modern Paris, Baron Haussmann, with London’s Hyde Park serving as the inspiration for it.

Houseboats on the Seine. The Seine separates the Bois de Boulogne from the suburb of Suresnes.

The Bois de Boulogne is a huge park on the outskirts of Paris which has an area of 8.459 square km (2.5 times that of New York's Central Park) and offers a peaceful escape from the city.

Having about an hours to spare before having to make my way to the airport on the morning after to catch a flight to Copenhagen, I took the opportunity to have a quick stroll in the park. The Bois de Boulogne is certainly a great place to have a stroll in, with a delightful mix of landscaped gardens, wooded areas and ponds and waterfalls. The park is also where the Hippodrome de Longchamp, the famous horse racing circuit is located and also where several huge châteaus can be found, one of which houses the offices of WWF-France. Having too little a time to explore the bulk of the park, my stroll was confined to the area close to Suresnes, but having a feel of what the Bois de Boulogne offers – it is certainly a place that will be on my itinerary on my next visit to Paris.

Landscaped gardens are a feature in the Bois de Boulogne.

Waterbodies and waterfalls add to the wonderful surroundings in the Bois de Boulogne.

The Bois de Boulogne had a wonderful mix of wooded areas, gardens, and waterbodies.

The Hippodrome de Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne.

The château that houses the offices of WWF-France in the Bois de Boulogne.

More of the Bois de Boulogne.

In the Bois de Boulogne.

Among the species of trees that Baron Haussmann introduced to the woods of the Bois de Boulogne were the chestnut trees.

Suresnes as seen from the Bois de Boulogne.





Life in the “fast-lane”: adventures on a vehicle deck of a RORO Ship

10 12 2010

One of the wonderful things that shipping has given us is the Roll-On Roll-Off or RORO ship. The RORO ship is probably an adaption of the landing ships of the Second World War, built with a bow ramp and to beach thus allowing military vehicles and logistics on wheels to be carried over large distances and quickly discharged ashore. In its simplest form the RORO ship takes the form of a double ended ferry with ramps at both ends and a deck to carry vehicles on – there were many of these operating in Malaysia – many of the larger rivers in the more remote places had to be crossed in this manner as bridges had not been built. The Penang ferry is another example of a simple RORO vessel and it is this form that perhaps the first commercial RORO Ships took shape in 1953 (the same year the first commercial jet-liner, the De Havilland Comet, was introduced), allowing a “drive-on” service to be introduced from Dover to Calais. This eliminated the need to load vehicles by lifting gear which was a time consuming and delicate affair, thus allowing a ten-fold increase in the throughput of cars on the crossing. The idea was extended first to the carriage of freight in trucks and trailers – allowing door-to-door delivery of goods, particularly refrigerated goods without having the need to unload and reload them into road freight vehicles. In the 1970s, as demand for passenger cars increased tremendously – particularly from Japan, dedicated Pure-Car Carriers (PCC) were introduced to transport brand new cars across the globe.

The RoRo Decks of a RoRo Vessel can be one of the more dangerous places to hang out in.

A feature of the modern RORO ship is the huge garage contained within the steel structure of the ship, often with several decks accessible through ramps and sometimes lifts. The garages are also equipped with huge ventilation fans, meant to extract exhaust and fuel fumes to keep the decks safe. “Safe” I guess in this case a relative term, as the vehicle decks of a RORO ship would probably count as one of the more dangerous places to be hanging out in – not that this is usually permitted. Standing in the middle of one gives the impression of being in a huge car-park, which a RORO deck effectively is, only that it is built of steel instead of concrete, and of course that vehicles are packed very tightly with barely any space left in between, as the “car-park” fills-up. It is a place where life is literally lived on the fast lane, with trailers, and sometimes trucks and cars zipping up and down and in a loading or discharging frenzy that is very much motivated by by the rush to load or discharge vehicles in the shortest possible time.

A car being driven off a RORO ship.

The vehicle deck of a RORO ship resembles that of a huge car-park, except that vehicles are packed with hardly any space between them.

Trailers parked on a vehicle deck of a RORO ship.

A trailer being driven up the ramp of a RORO ship.

The prime mover coming down the ramp after unloading the trailer on the upper deck - just 3 minutes later.

On the larger RORO ships, ramps are a common feature – most modern ROROs with multiple vehicle decks are fitted with hoistable ramps which can be hoisted up to the deck, allowing the space on the ramp – as well as below it to be utilised – maximising the use of deck space. This is opposed to fixed ramps, which are cheaper to build but result in valuable deck space being sacrificed. On some other RORO ships, movable decks can be lowered in place, allowing intermediate decks to be quickly created allowing two or more decks of vehicles requiring a lower headroom (such as passenger cars) to be utilised in a space that can also be used to carry on deck of cargo requiring a larger headroom.

A hoistable ramp being lowered with vehicles loaded on it.

A fixed ramp to a lower vehicle deck.

Closing the ramp cover for the fixed ramp to maintain watertight integrity of the lower deck.

A movable deck onboard a ship made to carry larger cargo, the Ville de Bordeaux which is designed to transport the fuselage and wings of the Airbus 380 manufactured in various plants over western Europe to France for assembly, allowing the ship to also be used for other RORO cargo.

Non standard RORO cargo can also be transported.

Tying down or securing of the cargo through chains, straps and turnbuckles to elephant foot fittings on deck is important.

Tie downs ...

Getting up close an personal ...

Close-up of a hoistable ramp.

Safety from a ship stability viewpoint has been of prime concern on RORO ships with its large decks which if flooded with water not only reduces buoyancy but also results in a large free-surface, since the well documented and published capsizing of the MS Estonia. Besides maintaining watertight integrity of the decks through which vehicles are brought on the ship generally through a stern or bow ramp, calculations are now required to demonstrate that these ships are safe even with the decks flooded with water.

The stern of a RORO ship is often where vehicles are loaded and discharged from over a ship fitted ramp.

Loaded and almost ready to go ...





Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!

19 11 2010

Every third Thursday of November (which was yesterday), the whole of France and much of the world celebrates the wonderful arrival of the much anticipated Beaujolais Nouveau which is released only on the day. Beaujolais Nouveau is a a quick-fermenting wine which is produced in the Beaujolais region of France made from the Gamay grape and has a very light and fruity flavour, and is best served chilled. The wine was traditionally made to celebrate the end of the harvest and originally sold after December 15 in the year of harvest, with the release date being changed to 15 November before being set as the 3rd Thursday of November, now referred to as “Beaujolais Day”.

Beaujolais Day in Singapore, 2010.





Colours of Bangkok

18 11 2010

As with many other living parts of Asia, there is much to catch the eye wandering around the streets of Asia’s City of Angels, Bangkok. There certainly is a lot more to the city than the abundance of well photographed sights and scenes that the city provides, which often jump out at you without having to strain the eye. Bangkok is a city where there is in fact no shortage of wonderful colours and textures that not just add to the colour of the city, but also brings the city to life …

Local oranges ready for juicing.

Sweetcorn on the steamer.

Groundnuts on the steamer.

Grapes for sale.

Eggs being transported.

Chocolate coated bananas.

Bottled drinks on sale.

In the basket of a food vendor.

Tuk-tuks ...

Graffiti at a construction site.

Books at a second hand book shop.

Overhead telephone lines against a background of ventilation louvres.

Reflection off a puddle of water.

Parasols of street vendors along Sukhumvit Road.

Display of a street footwear vendor.

Shoes on sale at Chatuchak market.

Charcoal stoves on display.

Roofs of stalls at Chatuchak market as seen from the Skytrain.

Three perspectives of a house through ventilation openings at Makkasan Station.

Roofs of houses.

Lines of the Skytrain.


Cans of milk at a tea vendor at Chatuchak.





The death of an icon in the City of Angels

17 11 2010

One of the sad things about the violent Red Shirt protests that occurred in May of this year, is the destruction of what had been an cinematic icon in Bangkok, the Siam Theatre. One of the few remaining single seat cinemas left in Bangkok, the Siam Theatre has stood in the Siam Square area since 1967 and has thus far, withstood the dramatic changes that the area has undergone in the four decades since. One of the more dramatic changes to area, the Skytrain (BTS) line and station which leaves much of the very busy Rama I Road in its shadow, in fact, provided a vantage point from which I was able, on a recent visit to Bangkok, to see the demolition of the burnt out shell of the former Siam Theatre and some of the surrounding shops for myself.

The view of the demolition of the buildings damaged during Red Shirt protests in May that included the iconic Siam Theatre.

I had first been acquainted with the area at the back end of 1984, during a stay that coincided with the release of Murray Head’s hit “One Night in Bangkok”. That stay, during which I spent not just a night, but some five and a half weeks in the City of Angels, gave me an opportunity to explore a city that I had only once before visited as a teenager in which I was not just to become acquainted with much of Central Bangkok, but with parts of Sukhumvit Road and the Klong Toei area.

How the area around Rama I Road and the former Siam Theatre had looked in 1992 before the BTS was built (source: http://www.2bangkok.com).

Siam Square had somehow seemed to be a centre of focus somehow, with me frequenting the shops and food stalls in the area on many occasions, once even being brave enough to catch a movie at Siam Theatre … one for which I would most remember for the audience scrambling to their feet at the image of the much revered King and Queen, as the National Anthem was played. On my more recent trips to the city, I have often visited the area – not recognising much of it as a result of the changes that have taken place, as well as for the Skytrain line which now dominates part of the area. What I was able to identify immediately on my previous visits was always the old Siam Theatre, which sadly is now only a memory.

A lady contemplates the changes taking place around Siam Square.

More of the demolition work in the area.





A stroll around the Makkasan area

15 11 2010

The Makkasan area of Bangkok is well known as being where the main depot of the State Railways of Thailand (SRT) is as well as an area that is known for its slums. The area also contains the delightful little (old) Makkasan Station, a station that would probably trace its origins back to the opening of the depot as far back as 1910, a century ago.

Makkasan Station is along the Eastern Commuter Line which connects Central Bangkok with Chachoengsao.

Slums are very much in evidence around the Makkasan area of Bangkok.

A view of the Makkasan area of Bangkok which has long been associated with the railway.

A rail truss bridge in the Makkasan area.

Much of the old Makkasan Staton building that we see today would have been erected post war, but delightful nonetheless with a charm of a old rural station. It serves as a focal point for the area: an open air market operating in its shadow every morning, and operates as a station along the Eastern Commuter Line that runs from Bangkok’s Central Station, Hua Lamphong, to Chachoengsao some 60 kilometres away, serving primarily as an alighting point for workers at the train depot. There is in fact now, a newer Makkasan Station – developed to serve the Airport Line that links central Bangkok with Suvarnabhumi Airport, which overshadows the old Makkasan (along with the elevated train line that runs parallel to the commuter line in the Makkasan area), and that would probably be the one that most would now think of as Makkasan Station, lying maybe a kilometre to the east of the old station.

The old commuter line, running parallel to the elevated new line - the Airport Link which provides a quick route from Central Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The market around Makkasan Station.

The market around Makkasan Station.

What can be seen at the old Makkasan Station and the area around it is possibly a cross section of life in the Bangkok that hasn’t yet been overrun by the skyscrapers and traffic – giving almost a glimpse into a world that perhaps is hidden to most tourists. It is a world that I would have very much liked to have had the time to explore – as I did the klongs off the Chao Phraya River close to the Klong Toei area a quarter of a century ago … something I guess I should prepare a post on, but given the limited time at my disposal, I was only able to catch a glimpse of the area and of life in the area.

The view from the main road of Makkasan Station.

The entrance to the station.

A tuk-tuk outside Makkasan Station.

On the spot repairs on a tuk-tuk outside Makkasan Station.

A proud resident of Makkasan.

Navigating through the labyrinth that is the market and the vehicles parked in front of the station, I found my way to the entrance of the station, and I immediately got a sense of the old world feel. The little station is in fact a gem waiting to be explored, its main lobby serving as a waiting area with wooden and stone benches providing the weary traveller with a place to rest before his next journey, as well as housing the ticket counter and a convenience shop. In the lobby, I was able to catch a glimpse at life at a standstill, something which escapes you on the busy streets beyond the station. Besides travellers waiting for the next train to arrive – something that I missed out on seeing, there were also children at play, bringing life from the streets to the lobby.

From the main lobby looking out to the platform ... A column supporting the new Airport Link partially obscures the Makkasan Train Depot in the background.

A view of the waiting area.

The waiting area and the ticket counter.

The convenience shop at Makkasan Station.

The platform at Makkasan Station.

Another view of the platform at Makkasan Station.

 

A child from the streets, playing at the station lobby.

A close-up of the ticket counter.

Across the platform (as on the platform itself) where I had again felt that I was in another world, one far removed from the hustle and bustle on the main streets on other side of the station, I was able to peek across at the yard of the train depot, where a wealth of old locomotives – including some steam locomotives … I managed to get a photograph of one through the gate before a security guard prevented me from taking any more (I am not sure why as there seems to be a wealth of photographs of some of the old locomotives in the yard on railfan sites). After a quick glance and a last look around, it was time for me to go, and not having the hour that it took me to walk to the area from where I was based, it was a quick ten minute rush back to the madness that is Central Bangkok, helter-skelter, seated on the backseat of a tuk-tuk.

Stepping into another world on the platform of Makkasan Station.

The elevated Airport Link next to the old line at Makkasan Station.

An old diesel locomotive in the yard of the train depot at Makkasan as seen from the station platform.

An old steam locomotive in the yard as seen through a gate.

A view of the station from across the tracks.

The station office.

Passengers waiting at the platform.

More scenes around the Makkasan area:

A slum area in Makkasan.

Buildings built over a high pressure pipeline!

A piece of old machinery at the Thai Labour Museum in the vicinity.

A religious procession taking place ... I think it's for the ordination of a monk.

A drummer at the procession.





No longer the land that Fairy Tales are made of …

9 11 2010

Wandering around parts of the area to the west of Changi Village today, what greets you is the host of holiday facilities, housed in terraced, semi-detached and detached units that had once be given to use as the living quarters of senior servicemen with the British forces stationed in the area. It was back in the days when my very first impressions of Changi Village were formed, that I had first become acquainted with the area, which had lay well protected behind a fence and guarded by alert policemen who played sentry at the main entry point which was a gate just up Netheravon Road from where the village was. Those were the days when what marked Changi Village were the two rows of zinc roofed shop houses which had provided the area with not just a distinct flavour but a feel that made the village a place to escape to. The area up Netheravon Road had a somewhat different feel to the village, being laid out in the fashion of the other British bases found on the island, with much less clutter and wide expansive spaces. Set on the rolling landscape that extended westwards towards the coastline and Fairy Point were the houses that had been the quarters of servicemen, left vacant by that time, as well as several large holiday villas placed at prime locations overlooking the sea. There were also the military facilities for which the area had been guarded including the now infamous former Changi Hospital which had for a time been used as a military hospital as well as several military facilities.

A gate had stood on Netheravon Road at the entrance to what had been a protected area where the likes of the then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, took his holidays.

By that time, many of the villas by the sea had been turned over for use by the most senior officers of the civil service for holidays, at a time when taking local holidays by the sea was seen as as a fashionable as a holiday in New York, Paris or Tokyo would be seen today. Some of the regular users of the bungalows in the area included members of the Cabinet, including the then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his family, who often took their holidays in a section that was further protected by another fence not far from where the Changi Sailing Club is today.

The fenced area seen was a protected area within the entire protected Changi Point area where members of the Cabinet would take their holidays.

Another view of the same fenced area along Netheravon Road.

Access to the area at that time would only have been possible by surrendering one’s identity card at the old style Police Post which was at the junction of Jalan Bekukong and Upper Changi Road … my parents would do that on each of the few occasions that we ventured into the area – as guests of one of their friends who were putting up at one of the bungalows there. My earliest impression of this was going to one which was at Fairy Point, at a large two storey bungalow, for a birthday party for one of the children of my parents’ friends, of which I have only vague memories of. What I do remember very well was the name of the area “Fairy Point” and with that, I had somehow associated the area with its large villas by the sea, one where I could imagine fairy tales being made of.

The area where the Police Post had been stood to the right of this ....

It was in the later part of the 1970s, at a time when Changi Village had already been cleared of the wooden shop houses and had been given the facelift that has made it what it is today, that I would frequent the land of fairy tales regularly. With the massive land reclamation project along much of the southern shores that started in the early 1970s, my parents and many other civil servants were deprived of the use of the wonderful holiday bungalows along the idyllic Tanah Merah and Mata Ikan coast that lay to the south east of Changi Beach, and many of the former quarters within what had been the protected Changi Point area were opened up for use by junior civil servants as holiday chalets, and my parents became regular users of the holiday units there. By that time, access to the area was also then opened to everyone, and we were free to come and go as we pleased, making it much easier to move around. The units that I first took a holiday in in the area is in a row of terraced houses fronting Netheravon Road, at its junction with Sealand Road, which still stands today. I remember that very well for the large airy rooms and the narrow staircase which led up from the entrance area that the door opened to. The units were furnished modestly – the living spaces had the old style rattan furniture with heavy foam cushions, and bed rooms had simple bed frames with mattresses lined with white bed linen. What was always nice to have was the well equipped kitchen which allowed us to self-cater, and my mother would often make her way to the new market at Changi Village to purchase what had seemed to be the freshest fruits of the sea one could then find in Singapore.

The terraced row of holiday units that I first stayed in at the junction of Netheravon Road and Sealand Road.

There were several other units that I had also holidayed at that are still there … one that I regularly found myself at were the semi-detached units which now appear to have been rented out off Sealand Road, which had a nice airy living room and rooms upstairs. Another was the single storey detached unit, Chalet L, off Sealand Road, which I would well remember for being the last unit in the area that I had taken a holiday with my parents at, as well as for being where I, with a few of my platoon mates, had our Run-Out-Date (ROD) party at the end of our fulltime National Service in 1987. It was around 1988 that I last took a holiday there … and following that, I guess life caught up with me and I haven’t really had the chance to walk around to the area since then until very recently … Taking a walk around, I found that much of it does still look the same, with the holiday units looking a lot more well maintained than they did before, being now run by a private entity on behalf of the Govenrment, and most of what had been there is still there. There are also some newer buildings and facilities around as well as additional fences which has somehow made the area seem more cluttered and seem less like that wonderful place I had many memories of … no longer the land perhaps that fairy tales are made of.

I was a regular visitor to the semi-detached units off Sealand Road - which now seems to have been leased out.

Another view of the semi-detached unit.

How the semi-detached unit had looked like in 1987 ... I have some more older photographs of the unit which I have not had the opportunity to scan ....

The inside of Chalet L in 1987.

Chalet L today.

The barbecue pit at Chalet L in 1986.

The barbecue pit today.





A walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: Wandering along the new railway and rediscovering the old

20 10 2010

During much of a rain and lightning interrupted eight kilometre walk with friends from the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road, I was surprised to discover that, despite the high-rises on the horizon and the other signs of modernity that have replaced what was a rural feel of much of Singapore beyond the city limits, I was able to immerse myself in a countryside where time seems to have forgotten. The walk, motivated by the sense of nostalgia for the old railway line which was prompted by the impending shift of the KTM station to Woodlands, allowed us to have a glimpse perhaps of a slice of Singapore that would be forgotten very soon after the last of the trains of the old railway which has been with us since 1903, makes a final stop at Tanjong Pagar sometime before the first of July next year.

Starting point of the walk - the Phoenix LRT Station in the new Singapore that has replaced the countryside of the old.

The walk took us through many of the areas that I have mentioned in another nostalgia related post on the railway, “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar: The Station at Bukit Timah” (also on asia! as “Keeping Track of Time”), allowing me and several others a last look at the stretch of line that is characterised by the two black steel truss bridges that crosses Bukit Timah Road. For me, it was also a chance to revisit the area which I had become familiar with as a young child, and as a consequence, my childhood, having first been acquainted with it staring out of the opened window of my father’s Austin 1100 on the many road trips made through the area.

How the area might have once appeared to me ... a scene from the backseat of a car further south along Upper Bukit Timah Road (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The same general area as it looks today.

The first stop we made, having met at Phoenix LRT station, was the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road. This provided a wonderful opportunity for me to do what as a child I always enjoyed – that is catching the train traversing what must certainly be the last major level crossing in Singapore, a crossing that is today, made across the six lanes of Choa Chu Kang Road. Somehow, watching the trains running across at road level, just in the shadow of a modern elevated urban railway line, the Bukit Panjang Light Rail Transit (LRT) system, seemed surreal … as was the scene around the level crossing. Looking up the tracks on the north bound side of the crossing, it looked as if the tracks were taking a path to an abyss – the abyss being a plot of land that I had once been familiar with from the many occasions that I had walked through it as a shortcut to Woodlands Road from one of the camps I had been at during my National Service – Stagmont Camp. I had on many occasions as well been on training exercises during my stint at the camp which involved walking up and down the areas around the tracks – once leaving a rifle behind in the dark, which I was fortunate enough to find with the help of my army mates, only having discovered my carelessness a few kilometres up the tracks.

The northbound track into the "abyss" that I once was familiar with from my days in National Service.

On the other side of the crossing, a little hut that serves as the control station for the crossing stands – with a little yellow outhouse behind it, as well as a village like house that was perhaps a common sight in the area once, that served as the quarters of the railway staff manning the crossing. The area of the control hut is probably close to the site of Bukit Panjang Station, one of the stations on the original Singapore to Kranji Railway line. Bukit Panjang Station was also one of the main stops along the line after the 1932 Railway Deviation which gave us the grand station at Tanjong Pagar and the two black truss bridges we see in the area. I am not sure when the station stopped functioning or was demolished – but perhaps like the Phoenix that the nearby Phoenix Estate and LRT station is named after, a new Bukit Panjang Station is slowly – but surely, rising out of its ashes nearby – part of the new railway line – the Downtown MRT line, which for a large part, will run parallel to the original railway line which ran from Kranji down via Newton to the original terminal at Tank Road.

The KTM control hut at on the other side of the level crossing.

A scene reminiscent perhaps of the countryside of old.

The KTM staff was kind enough to allow the use of the outhouse ....

The new railway is being built to replace the old ... the Downtown Line is being constructed parallel to the old railway line.

Deciding that it was too dangerous to walk physically along the tracks, not just because of the dangers of walking along or close to the railway track, but also in anticipation of the fury that, the god of thunder, Thor, seemed to want to unleash, we made our southward trek first along Upper Bukit Timah Road. This took us past the Murugan Hill Temple, a relatively recent addition to the area, having moved to its current location in 1992 from its original home in Sungei Tengah where it could trace its history back to a shrine that was put up in 1962. In getting there, we had also walked past a structure that is reminiscent of the very first overhead bridges in Singapore – constructed of steel with open sides – a temporary overhead bridge erected across Upper Bukit Timah Road that has perhaps been recycled from a decommissioned first or second generation overhead bridge.

An overhead bridge reminiscent of the first overhead bridges in Singapore.

The new Murugan Hill Temple which shifted to the Bukit Panjang area from its original home in Sungei Tengah in 1992.

Continuing further south, we had a quick look at the second level crossing in the area – a smaller one with a delightful old wooden gate, and some of the abandoned buildings around before the sheets of rain that accompanied Thor’s fury came down forcing us to take what little shelter the KTM buildings in the area had offered. After a while, with the rain not showing any signs of abating, we decided to cross the road to wait the rain out at a coffee shop and it was probably an hour before we were able to continue with our walk.

A scene from the "countryside" enroute to the level crossing at Gombak Drive.

Parts of Upper Bukit Timah Road still have that old world feel.

More of the old world feel ...

 


The railway building near the level crossing at Gombak Drive where we took shelter from the storm.

Looking north from the level crossing at Gombak Drive.

Further along the route, we walked past the Boys Town complex … this was the destination that, as boys growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, many feared they would end up in for misbehaving – or so many of our parents then had us believe. It was probably a huge misconception that existed then that Boys Town was a correctional facility and a home for delinquent boys – although it did actually house a boys home, as well as a vocational school which did also take in troubled boys as well as orphans, with a view to providing a home as well as an education. The home and vocational school was started in 1948 by the Gabrielite Brothers, a Catholic Missionary group, as the St. Joseph’s Trade School before being renamed as “Boys Town”.

The once feared Boys Town complex ...

Further along the way, we decided to explore the Stations of the Cross at St. Joseph’s Church – probably one of the last remaining village Catholic churches in Singapore – with a cemetery in its yard. The cemetery had once been a shortcut for me – getting from the church to a friend’s house up Chestnut Drive. Back then, the church side of Chestnut Drive had been lined with single storey wooden houses that were rented from the church who owned much of the land around Chestnut Drive. What is unique about the Stations of the Cross is that this is the only Catholic church in Singapore where the stations are located outside the church. The church building in itself is also rather unique – featuring a 33 metre tall pagoda like roof structure that rises above the area rather prominently. The building was completed in 1964 and consecrated by the then Archibishop of Malacca-Singapore, Michael Olcomendy on August 30, 1964, and built to cater for the growing congregation on the site of a previous building that had been built some 110 years prior to that.

The St. Joseph's Church building built in 1964 on Upper Bukit Timah Road features a pagoda style roof that rises some 33 metres.

The original St. Joseph's Church, built 110 years before the structure we see today (source: St. Joseph's Church website http://www.stjoseph-bt.org.sg/St_Joseph_Website/About_Us.html).

The outdoor Stations of the Cross - unique to St. Joseph's Church in Singapore.

Chestnut Drive as it appears today. It used to be lined with houses that were rented from the church.

There are probably not many who know this, but Chestnut Drive was where a temporary Magistrate’s Court was set up in 1967 in the newly built school building that became the Chestnut Drive School. The next part of the walk continued southwards towards the area where the first of the two black truss bridges in the area, as well as the girder bridge that straddles Hillview Road are … which I will continue with in another post.





Crossroads in my journey

18 10 2010

Wandering around the Bukit Panjang area with a group of old friends and some new found ones … I was transported back to a time when I had somehow seen the Bukit Panjang area as a crossroads of sorts. It had in fact, always been one in the physical sense – the former Bukit Panjang roundabout – what is now the junction of Woodlands Road, Upper Bukit Timah Road, Choa Chu Kang Road and Bukit Panjang Road, serving as a major intersection where north or south bound traffic could make a turn towards the rural and industrial areas that lay to the west via the then long and narrow Choa Chu Kang Road. The area was I guess where I had once come to another crossroad in life – one in which seated at the back of a 3-ton truck, I was transported into a journey into the abyss that was Pulau Tekong, first stopping off at Keat Hong Camp off Choa Chu Kang Road to pick up the kit bag that was to accompany me for the next two years of my life.

The intersection of Choa Chu Kang, Woodlands and Upper Bukit Timah Roads had always been a major crosss road ... back when Bukit Panjang Roundabout served the junction. The area which one boasted of a Railway Station has seen a huge transformation and now sees a Light Rail Line running across the old railway.

I had first come to know the area in my childhood on the many journeys through the area on the way to the Causeway when life in the back seat of the car involved taking the scenes that flashed by the opened windows rather than that on the 3 inch screen of a hand held game console. There were also several journeys especially those taken during the lunar New Year holidays on which we would turn off to the west – towards the Teck Whye area where a friend of my mothers ran an orchid nursery on a little road that turned upwards from Choa Chu Kang Road – and it was on those journeys that I first became acquainted with the level crossing just a short distance up the road.

The level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road ... the last major rail level crossing in Singapore.

I am not quite sure how I had developed a fascination for trains –something that might have been fed through the many visits to the Robinson’s toy department which had a wonderful collection of model train sets that I often had my sights on and perhaps having had many encounters with the Hooterville Cannonball on black and white television, while being entertained by the then popular comedy, Petticoat Junction, but having had a fascination for trains – I also found anything else that had to do with trains fascinating – including many of the features seen along the tracks, particularly the few level crossings that I had come across, of which the first was the one on Choa Chu Kang Road.

Could my fascination with trains have been from the diet I had of black and white television in which I had become acquainted with the Hooterville Cannonball in Petticoat Junction? (Source: http://petticoat.topcities.com/hooterville_cannonball.htm)

I am not sure when I had first seen that particular crossing in operation, but it was something that I would look forward to seeing each time we were in the area. It always seemed surreal somehow how traffic would grind to a halt, as the man who manned the crossing, flag in hand, hurried about closing the wooden gates of the crossing, followed by the sight beyond the gate of a train zooming its way across the road …

I had always looked forward to seeing a train zooming past the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road whenever I was in the area ...

The wonderful sight of a train crossing the road ...

Signal flag used at the level crossing.

The crossing had been one that in the later part of my youth, I had left behind me, as school going years intervened and visits to the orchid nursery became less frequent. It was only many years later when I was doing my National Service that I had become reacquainted with the crossing during the four months that I had spent at nearby Stagmont Camp. By that time, much of the area had become unrecognisable and the roundabout had taken a bow. Somehow it did not seem the same – with most of what was around had disappeared, only a few rows of old shop houses along Upper Bukit Timah Road and Woodlands Road had been left behind … one for some reason that I had remembered for a fruit shop that seem to have the juiciest lychees that I had ever seen. I guess with that and perhaps not having had to time to explore much of the area which I had previously been familiar with, I took less of an interest in what was arond – passing at most a cursory glance at the crossing that I once held a fascination for.

The area which I would have used as a shortcut coming down from Stagmont Camp to Woodlands Road ... I crossed the tracks here on many occasions, as well as having been involved in many exercises along this same set of tracks.

The area where Ten Mile Junction is today used to have a row of shop houses as well as the huts of villages behind them and Stagmont Camp.

The new railway is being built to replace the old ... the Downtown Line is being constructed parallel to the old railway line which will be disused after the shift of the KTM station to Woodlands. Bukit Panjang used to also be where a main Railway Station had once been located - now a new Bukit Panjang station for the DOwntown Line will erase any memories we may have of the old Bukit Panjang Station.

With the impending shift of the KTM station in Singapore to Woodlands – we would soon see the last of level crossings such as the one at Choa Chu Kang Road, the last major level crossing that remains in Singapore – there are two other smaller ones that are along the same stretch of the railway line, one at Kranji Road and another at Gombak Drive. There isn’t much time left for me I guess … to relive that childhood fascination I had for them …

Besides the crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road, there are also smaller level crossings at Gombak Drive and Kranji Road.


We will soon see the last of the railway level crossings that had once been a feature of the railway in Singapore.





Revisiting Clifford Pier

13 10 2010

Having spent a few hours of my weekend in Rotunda Library of the former Supreme Court, I was able to have a last feel of what must be considered to be the greatest work of Frank Dorrington Ward. This certainly allowed me to have a better appreciation for the genius of the architect who gave us some of the magnificent structures we have inherited from our colonial past, including one that my attention was turned to last evening, Clifford Pier. Ward’s contribution towards the beautiful pier was as the Chief Architect of the team of architects at the Public Works Department that provided the design for what must be the finest pier to be built in Singapore, in which the Art-Deco style features prominently. The pier, which may have looked a little worse for wear in the latter part of its life as a public pier from which many people made their journeys to the southern islands and the gateway for many seamen coming ashore to Singapore, has been wonderfully restored and a large part of it given to use as an exclusive restaurant “One on the Bund”, and the front end of it being converted into an entrance to the very posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Clifford Pier at its opening in 1933 (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

The front end of the pier now serves as the entrance to the posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

The magnificent pier, built to replace Johnston’s Pier in 1933, never seemed to go to sleep and was always alive with activity in the 1970s when I was growing up. It was a place that I certainly have many fond memories of, having visited on many occasions to watch the comings and goings of the passengers of the launches that bobbled up and down the sides of the pier. There was always a frenzy of activity as passengers would scramble up and down the precariously slippery steps to or from the spacious deck of the pier. Already busy as it was, the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar would bring with it the frenzy crowd of pilgrims heading to Kusu Island for the annual pilgrimage. The pier was also where I had embarked on several adventures of my own – to the islands that lay beyond the southern shores of Singapore and also on to the high seas. It would have been nice if the pier had kept its place as a gateway to the southern islands and beyond – a focal point close to the old heart of the city from which a doorway opened to the shores that lay beyond Singapore – an area that is significant to the history of Singapore as one being where many of the our forefathers – the early immigrants who made Singapore what it is would have first set foot on the island. This sadly wasn’t to be as the conversion of what is now known as Marina Bay into a fresh water reservoir with the construction of the Marina Barrage put paid to any thoughts some of us might have harboured on this. The pier ceased operations in 2004 as the Marina Barrage had cut off what had once been the Inner Roads of the harbour to the sea.

An early view of Clifford Pier (c. 1950) from an old postcard (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

The pier is perhaps best known for the beautiful concrete trusses which support its roof structure, which provided a wide unsupported span of the roof supports, allowing a clear and unobstructed space across much of the expansive deck of the once well used pier – another piece of architectural genius given to Singapore by Frank Dorrington Ward and his team. While the trusses have perhaps escaped the eyes of many in the hundreds of thousands who might have passed under the roof they provide support for during the 71 years of the pier’s operation, it was (and still is) a sight to behold.

Deck of Clifford Pier with the beautiful concrete arched trusses of the roof structure above (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

Clifford Pier as it appears today as "One on the Bund".

The beautifully illuminated concrete trusses of the roof structure - not everybody gets to get close up and personal with them anymore.

Another view of the setting of the restaurant that now occupies Clifford Pier.

The restoration and conversion of the use of the pier does provide an opportunity to savour the beauty of the truss structure, particularly in the evenings when the effects of the varied and changing hues provided by the coloured illumination which does seem to bring the beauty of structures out brilliantly. However, it is unfortunate for many of us that much of the pier within the exclusive restaurant remains inaccessible to the general public to allow an up close and personal appreciation of the wonderfully design roof structure. I had in the past attempted to capture the trusses on camera but was prevented from doing so and only got a chance to do it as a guest of an event held at the restaurant last evening. While it is nice to see the restoration of buildings that are our monuments and heritage and the use of them in a very dignified manner as is the case with Clifford Pier, and with the consideration that certainly must be made from a commercial perspective, it would still be nice if at least some parts of it are made accessible to the general public who like me, have a link or a memory to a past that might be worth a revisit from time to time. I do hope that whatever is planned for some of the future heritage sites such as the grand station at Tanjong Pagar that consideration be put in to allow parts of them to at least remain accessible to us.


The beautiful setting inside the restaurant.


More views of the restaurant.

Maybe other ideas on conservation are required to allow the general public to fully appreciate some of our heritage buildings?

The entrance to the Fullerton Bay Hotel at the front end of the pier.

The view of the restaurant from the entrance.

Views of the wonderful structure of the pier.

A close-up of the trusses ...

Air-conditioning vents blend in with the existing structure.


The decor of the restaurant does include many reminders of the past.

More views of last evening’s event:

Dough figurines that were commonly found amongst the vendors that accompanied the the wayangs (street Chinese Operas) of old.

The open air deck at the far end of the pier.





An Oasis lost

3 10 2010

With the news carried by the local print media on Thursday that the demolition of the National Stadium has started, there has been much focus on the stadium itself and how it would remain in the hearts of the many Singaporeans who have sat on its terraces since it was built for the 7th South East Asian Peninsula (SEAP) Games in 1973. Having been a landmark in the Kallang area for close to four decades, the area would probably look a little bare once the grey icon and its four floodlight towers makes an exit from the landscape off Nicoll Highway and Mountbatten Road.

The Today report on the start of demolition at the National Stadium on 30 Sep 2010.

Demolition work has began in earnest and access to roads in the vicinity of the stadium are now restricted (seen on 1 Oct 2010).

For me, the stadium always seemed an invariable part of the landscape in the Kallang area, one that stood firm despite the many changes that have overtaken the area around it since the days when it first dominated the area. Some of the sights familiar to me that had kept the stadium company in the earlier days of the stadium had since abandoned the Grand Old Lady. One of these was the bright and lively Guillemard Circus that I had always been fond of passing … with its colourful neon signs that transformed it into a wonderland of light at night – one that somehow I recall being dominated by the huge Knife Brand Cooking Oil advertisement. There was of course the old Wonderland Amusement Park that had my favourite ride – a roller coaster that I would persuade my parents to return to the park for time and time again – the Wonderland was in fact how I had first become acquainted with the area. Years later, I was to spend a short period of time at a shipyard on the banks of the Geylang River just by the area where the Wonderland was located, walking past the stadium from a bus stop in Kallang everyday to get to the area around Jalan Benaan Kapal which has since been transformed in a way that makes it had to imagine slipways lining what were dirty and muddy river banks.

The newly constructed stadium was the most modern in South East Asia and provided an ideal setting for the birth of the Kallang Roar. The stadium had stood as a landmark in the area since it opened in 1973.

The stadium being prepared for demolition on 28 Sep 2010.

I have had over the 37 years had a love affair with the Grand Old Lady, one that started in 1974 with the first leg of the Malaysia Cup semi-final match played between Singapore and Penang. It was where I had first watched a football match live … and became part of the frenzied atmosphere that accompanied the matches played in the stadium featuring Singapore which became known as the much Kallang Roar. In its heyday, as many as 70,000 pairs of feet would stamp on the terraces combined with 70,000 voices that gave the stadium that thunderous blare that put fear in many visiting teams at the stadium.

A reflection on an icon that will soon be a mirage ...

The stadium had often in its life been referred to as the “Lions’ Den”, not after the pair of stone Merdeka Lions that had once stood guard at the ends of the span of the Merdeka Bridge, being moved to stand guard at the area on which Stadium Boulevard had been constructed, but after the national football team which besides being referred to as the “Boys in Blue” – a reference to the sky blue jerseys they wore in the 1970s and 1980s, were also referred to as the “Lions”. The pair of lions also abandoned the stadium – sometime perhaps at the end of the 1980s.

One of the floodlight towers that dominated the Kallang landscape.

A lion watches sadly from across Nicoll Highway as the former Lions Den is being torn down.

Whilst there were many that abandoned the Grand Old Lady, there had been a few that managed to stay with it throughout its life. Among those that have kept the stadium company were the nearby Police Coast Guard (Marine Police) headquarters which moved to Pulau Brani with the construction of the Marina Barrage, and a somewhat forgotten icon of the area: the Oasis Restaurant complex. The Oasis would be going the way of the stadium as well, having stood where it was for some forty years. Indeed the Oasis had been as much of an icon in the Kallang Park area since it was opened in 1969 as the Oasis Theatre Restaurant, Cabaret and Nightclub. Comprising a three storey main building and three auxiliary buildings built on stilts extending out some 100 metres over the Kallang Basin, the complex was a popular night spot for many years. The octagonal shaped auxiliary buildings which housed restaurants provided the complex with its distinctive character which Singaporeans immediately identified with the complex and provided a unique dining experience for many were completed in 1970 and operated until the closure of the complex a few years back. The octagonal shaped buildings and the three storey main building are also in the process of being torn down, and a feature that will also be missing from the area very soon.

The former Police Coast Guard HQ near the stadium.

The distinctive octagonal structures on stilts that used to be part of the Oasis Restaurant complex over the Kallang Basin.

The 3-storey main building of the former Oasis being demolished (as seen on 28 Sep 2010).

The octagonal buildings being reflected off the Kallang Basin. Once giving a distinctive character to the basin, the reflections of the basin will soon reflect only the sky (as seen on 28 Sep 2010).

One of the octagonal buildings being demolished (as seen on 28 Sep 2010).

With the icons of its past being dismantled, Kallang will no doubt never look the same again. That change is inevitable in land scarce Singapore is something that we as Singaporeans have come to accept. In the case of Kallang, the change is certainly necessary – one that will give Singapore a sorely needed modern sports hub that is sorely lacking at the moment. Still, there is that part of me that doesn’t want to let go … the part that will always remember Kallang fondly for the roller coaster rides not just that Wonderland brought with it, but the ones that the Lions took us on in the thrills and spills that accompanied their exploits in the Malaysia Cup.

Vanishing scenes around Nicoll Highway.

The north east floodlight tower looks like it would be the first of the four to come down.

More views around the stadium and its environs taken on 28 Sep 2010:
















Once Tanah Merah …

16 08 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline …

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

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

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

tanah-merah

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





The glow in the dark

5 07 2010

Wandering around in the glow of the Shanghai night, I was reminded of the fascination I have always had for the bright lights of a city. Somehow, wandering around in the warm glow of city lights seems to provide me with a lift, transporting me at the same time into a world that seemingly is one where fairytales would be made of. It is perhaps that same magical feeling one gets in the fairytale world of the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, where one somehow becomes immediately immersed in the delightful fantasies that the gardens had contributed to Hans Christian Anderson in the telling of his stories. It is a wonderful feeling that the glow of a city gives, whispering in the language of the hustle and bustle of the streets that seem, as in the words of the Christmas tune “Silver Bells”, to be “dressed in holiday style” by the luminescent neon and incandescent glow.

The lights of Shanghai draw people from all over China ... a tourist waits in the bus in the warm glow of the Shanghai night.

The National Billboard on North Bridge Road (source: Derek Tait)

I suppose my fascination had started all those years back when as a child, Singapore seemed to be awash in the glow of lights. Neon signs seemed to be omnipresent and one could never seem to escape being bathed in the glow of neon. I remember Guillemard Circus being particularly bright – dominated by the huge advertisement billboards that glowed in the dark. Speaking of huge billboards, the mother of all billboards, one that rose some 50 metres above ground and with an area of some 186 square metres, had stood above the National Showroom along North Bridge Road, in between Capitol and the big Bata store, dominating the skyline of the civic district. That billboard stood for some 11 years, having been erected sometime in 1963, before being taken down in 1974 when the National Showroom shifted out to make way for redevelopment. The blocks of flats that I had lived in didn’t escape as well. A huge flashing neon Setron advertisement wrapped around the cylindrical water tank could be seen for miles (Setron was a homegrown maker of TV sets).

The glow of Shanghai on a rainy evening.

The dimming of Singapore started in 1972, when a ban on flashing neon signs came into effect. The oil crisis of 1973 played a part as well, as efforts to save energy came into effect and bright light started losing favour. Further restrictions came into effect in the late 1970s as the use of outdoor advertising and neon signs was discouraged, making it difficult to obtain a license for erecting billboards and neon advertisements, for reasons ranging to the distraction these would have to motorists, to the clutter that it was said to add to the skyline. Still, there were those occasions when Singapore still had a bit of a glow, one of which would be the light-up which put a glow on the evening of National Day. Many buildings in the civic district would be illuminated, and it was during those occasions that it was always nice to wander around the city. The grandest buildings that would be lit up would be the Supreme Court, City Hall, the Victoria Memorial Hall and Empress Place Building, the GPO (now Fullerton Hotel), and the building that housed the school that was to become my alma mater which is now the Singapore Art Museum. One light up that I always looked forward to seeing was the one that involved the filter beds at the corner of Cavenagh Road and Bukit Timah Road, opposite the Japanese Club, where there would be the streams of the fountain dancing in the coloured lights.

The neon glow of Shanghai.

What is nice to see these days is that some of the glow has been regained with a rethink of restrictions that now see areas such as Orchard Road brightened up. It is also nice that many of the wonderful buildings we have are also aglow, and with the first ever F1 night race in Singapore, for three evenings, audiences worldwide are treated to the spectacle of not just of a race under lights, but one that provides the world with a view of the beautifully illuminated edifices in our civic district. Whether I am in Singapore, or in a city like Shanghai, the warm glow of the illuminated cityscape is something that never fails to lure me and it is something that I can’t help but marvel at.

The street circuit, seen during the inaugural F1 night race in 2008, runs through the beautifully lighted iconic structures of down town Singapore.

More photographs of the Shanghai glow:

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All that Jazz: New Orleans and the Preservation Hall

28 06 2010
There is nothing that can describe sitting in the humid air of the dusty floor of a packed hall in an old Spanish colonial building set in the main square in the Vieux Carré and listening to feet tapping strains of the brass, woodwind, bass, piano, and percussion instruments that could only be associated with the fabulous sounds of the southern brand of jazz, all for a sum of two U.S. dollars. I suppose there is nothing that can aptly describe New Orleans as well, where the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs every evening since 1961 to packed audiences in a setting that could only be that of the temple of southern jazz. New Orleans is a city that is unique in many ways, atypical as North American cities go, a collection of the influences of her former French and Spanish masters, before becoming coming under control of the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon for a sum of $15 million. In New Orleans, we see architecture that is inherited from the Spanish, a joie de vivre inherited from the French, in a setting that perhaps feels more like the Caribbean that a city on the North American mainland should.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band performing to a packed hall.

The Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street (off Jackson Square) was founded in 1961 and is the temple of southern jazz.

Wandering around the streets of the French Quarter or Vieux Carré filled with buildings that date back to the era of Spanish rule in the late 18th Century with the characteristic wrought iron balconies and inner courtyards, one can’t escape from the sound of music that constantly fills the air. In and around the Vieux Carré which is centered on Jackson Square, the former Place d’Armes, one often sees a piano or two being wheeled around. Music is very much a part of street life in a city that is synonymous with hearty celebration and cuisine: the Mardi Gras and Jambalaya. It is a city that is both magical as well as being mysterious, being associated with practices such as Voodoo, where walks around the old cemetery is a must for the visitor as much as sitting on the floor of the Preservation Hall is. It is a city that continues to fascinate me and one that I would love the opportunity to visit again.

Music is everywhere in New Orleans.

The wrought iron balconies of the Spanish influenced buildings that line the streets of New Orleans.