The first Royal Sailors’ Rest House outside of the UK

3 03 2022

Perched on an elevation right across from the dockyard gates, the attractive building that housed Aggie Weston’s Royal Sailors’ Rest stood as out as one of the more noticeable structures in the huge naval base in Sembawang. Designed by preeminent architectural firm Swan and Maclaren and completed in 1963, the Royal Sailors’ Rest featured 50 cabins, a restaurant, games rooms, tennis courts and a swimming pool. Established by a Royal Navy and Royal Marines charity established by Dame Agnes “Aggie” Weston whose history goes back to 1876, the sailors’ rest house was the very first to be established outside of the United Kingdom.

The former Aggie Weston’s

Endowed with a complete set of facilities to meet the needs of Royal Navy personnel, especially those coming in with the fleet being put up at nearby HMS Terror, the life of the first overseas Aggie Weston’s would close in a matter of eight years.

The Royal Sailors’ Rest opening to great fanfare in 1963

The construction of the sailors’ rest came as part of a modernisation programme for the naval base initiated in the early 1960s with a view to the continued future use of the base. Singapore, along with Aden, had been identified as important bases to be retained by the Harold Macmillan led Conservative government then in power in the UK. This came even as Britain’s development of amphibious task forces minimised the need for overseas bases. The policy was however reversed in a matter of years by the Labour government led by Sir Harold Wilson which came into power in 1964. A defence white paper published in 1966 would lead to the eventual withdrawal of British forces based in Singapore at the end of October 1971, and this meant that the first overseas Aggie Weston’s would operate for a period of only eight years.

All was however not lost for the beautifully constructed recreational complex. With the pullout, a small Australian, New Zealand and UK joint force under the ANZUK pact was established in Singapore from which both the UK and the Australians would withdraw from, resulting with the deployment of the New Zealand Defence Forces as the sole foreign force stationed in Singapore to supplement its defence needs from 1975. New Zealand NZForSEA (New Zealand Force South Easr Asia) was formed in 1974 to take on this role and the former Aggie Weston’s would find use again as Fernleaf Centre, which would be used as a recreational space, a transit centre and as quarters for unmarried members of the force. As Fernleaf Centre, the former sailors’ rest would see good use for some fifteen more years until the departure of NZForSEA in 1989. During this time, the centre featured a library that boasted of some 20,000 books.

Fernleaf Centre as a transit centre.

Subsequent to the withdrawal, the former sailors’ rest found use BY CDans (Civil Defence Association for National Servicemen) as its Sembawang Clubhouse, which morphed into the HomeTeamNS Sembawang, from 2000 until the brand new HomeTeamNS Khatib clubhouse was completed in June 2020.

Today, the site remains empty and its eventual fate remains uncertain. One can however look into the crystal ball that is the Master Plan, which has the site identified as a future housing site, possibly for high-rise public housing with a plot ratio of 3.5. Whatever it is, my hope is that the building, a landmark in Sembawang and a repository of many memories and of the area’s history since 1963, is kept.

What the Master Plan says about the future of the site.

A time machine to the Singapore of the 60s

31 05 2016

It is wonderful that technology allows the wealth of photographs that exist of a Singapore we no longer see to be shared. Those especially taken by those whose stay in Singapore was temporary, offer perspectives of places as they were that the local might have thought little of capturing. One of my favourite sets of photographs are those of a David Ayres. Shared through a Flickr album Oldies SE Asia containing some 250 photographs, they take us back to Mr. Ayres’ days in the Royal Navy and include many scenes of places of the Singapore of my childhood that I would not otherwise have been able to ever see again.

A part of Singapore we can never go back to. The view is of the waterfront and the Inner Roads from a vantage point just across the mouth of the Stamford Canal from Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk. Land reclamation has since taken this view away, replacing it with a view that will include One Raffles Link and Esplanade Theatres by the Bay (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr. Ayres interactions in Singapore came from his two stints at HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) in the Naval Base. The first in 1963/64, just about the time I was born, and again in 1966/67. Now 71, he finally managed a trip that he said he he just had to make having not been back to Singapore since he last saw it almost 50 years ago at the end of his second stint in 1967.

A HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) barrack block, one that is familiar to me as it was the same block I was accommodated during my reservist in-camp training stints in the 1990s (David Ayres on Flickr).

I managed to say a quick hello to Mr. Ayres during his short visit, managing a short chat with him at a coffee shop in what had once been Sembawang Village, an area that is quite well represented in Mr. Ayres’ set of photographs.  Once a busy area of watering holes, shops and makeshift eating stalls located just across one of the main entrances to the huge Naval Base – an entrance used especially by personnel headed to HMS Terror,  all that it has since been reduced to is the row of two-storey shophouses in which the coffee shop was at.

David Ayres (R), with Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group.

David Ayres (R), with his mate Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group, in the shadow of the Nelson Bar of today.

The Nelson Bar as seen in 1967 (David Ayres on Flickr).

It was interesting to learn that there was much Mr. Ayres could still recognise from his walk earlier in the day around the former Naval Base, a walk he did with his mate Phil with the help of Nora of the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group. It is perhaps fortunate for Mr. Ayres that Sembawang, a part of Singapore he would have been most familiar with, is one of few places left in Singapore in which much of its past is still to be found in the present.

The Red House, as the Fleet Sailing Centre was referred to because of its red roof (David Ayres on Flickr).

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It's red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It’s red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

A good part of the base housing still remains intact, as do the former dockyard and stores basin, both of which still operating under another guise. Part of HMS Terror is also still around, a part that is visible over its perimeter fence. There also is the former “Aggie Westons” on the hill across from the dockyard gates. This saw use as the Fernleaf Centre in the days when the NZ Force SEA had troops based in Sembawang and is now in use by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. A sea pavilion, which served as the Fleet Sailing Centre in the days of the Naval Base, is also still visible from the SAF Yacht Club. Referred to as the “Red House” for its red roof tiles, the pavilion has since been turned green and as observed by Mr. Ayres, now looks rather dilapidated.

‘Aggie Westons’ in David’s time in Sembawang, it became Fernleaf Centre during the days of the New Zealand Force SEA and is today used by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. David made a stop here during his recent visit to Sembawang (David Ayres on Flickr).

As we pored over some photographs Mr. Ayres had printed over glasses of lime juice, he also made mention that the row of shophouses we were at had not been around during his first stint at HMS Terror. One of the area’s last additions, it had been put up before Mr. Ayres came back for his second tour. It is in the row that several bars including the Nelson Bar were housed and was a popular drinking spot for servicemen up to the days when the New Zealand forces had a presence in the area. It is also worth mentioning that the cluster of stalls found in the area, popular as stopover for personnel looking for a quick bite, was where the improvised hawker dish we know as Roti John is said to have originated from.

The cluster of food stalls at Sembawang Village, where Roti John was said to have been invented (David Ayres on Flickr).

Besides those in and around the Naval Base, Mr. Ayres captures include many other places that featured in my younger days; places in and around the city centre, then referred to as Singapore, as well as a few far flung places such as Changi. There are also scenes found in the set taken in peninsula Malaysia that are familiar to me from the drives my father was fond of making north of the Causeway. The photographs of the city centre have proved to be particularly fascinating to younger Singaporeans. One taken of Raffles Place in its landscape car-park rooftop garden days  in the direction of Battery Road, made its rounds in 2012, going viral in Singapore. One impression of the modern city that had replaced the one in his photographs that Mr. Ayres and his friend Phil had, was of seeing very few elderly people in it; this perhaps is a manifestation of the disconnect with the brave new world that the city centre has become many in the older generation feel.


Mr. Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966 made its rounds around the internet in 2012 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr Ayres’ photographs have a quality that goes beyond simple snapshots. Well composed and often offering a wider view of the places he found himself in, they not only take us back to the places we once knew but also immerse us into the scene being captured. The photographs are for me, a means to travel back in time, back to the places I could otherwise have little hope of seeing again, and back to a world I would not otherwise have been able to go home to.

A street that once came alive in the evenings with its food offerings – the section of Albert Street at its Selegie Road end where Albert Court Hotel is today (David Ayres on Flickr).

An “Ice Water Stall” outside what is today the National Museum (David Ayres on Flickr).

The gate post and the Indian Rubber tree today. The tree has since gained the status of a protected tree, having been listed as one of Singapore’s 256 Heritage Trees.


Changi Creek, 1966 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Changi Creek today.

Changi Creek today.

A familiar scene along Canberra Road that Mr. Ayres captured in 1966. The convoy of dockyard (and later Sembawang Shipyard) workers rushing home was seen into the 1980s (David Ayres on Flickr).

Jalan Sendudok in Sembawang. Notice that the Chinese characters used for Sembawang differ from those used today. The road, which still exists, has since been realigned (David Ayres on Flickr).

Where Selegie met Serangoon over the Rochor Canal, 1966. This photograph helps take me back to visits to Tekka market, the roof of which can be seen on the left of the photo, with my mother whenever mutton curry was on the menu (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and unfamiliar buildings, it now looks completely different.

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and now unfamiliar buildings, it looks a completely different place.

1966. The North Bridge Road that I knew, close to its junction with Bras Basah Road, close to where Jubilee and Odeon Theatres were, which would have been behind the photographer (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

Further down North Bridge Road in 1966 – a back entrance to Raffles Institution is seen on the left and the walls of the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (now CHIJMES) can be seen on the other side of the road (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

A river crossing in Malaysia in 1967. Not in Singapore but many from Singapore who travelled up north by road would have had this experience before road bridges across the major rivers were completed. One such crossing was at Muar. This existed up to the 1960s. My own experience was of two crossings on the road up to Kuantan in the 1970s and early 1980s. One had been at Endau, at which a tow boat similar to what is seen here was used. The other was a narrower crossing at Rompin that utilised a ferry pulled by wire-rope (David Ayres on Flickr).

The star of Chong Pang Village

3 07 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978

The sun rises on a Sembawang tradition

5 04 2012

The Panguni Uthiram festival is a Hindu festival that is celebrated annually during the full moon of the Tamil month of Panguni. In Singapore, this is celebrated at the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple, now located at Yishun Industrial Park A. The celebration of the festival in the area traces its history back to 1967 when the temple was located off Canberra Road which was then part of the Royal Navy Naval Base in Sembawang. More information can be found on a previous post, A lesser known Hindu festival with a Kavadi procession: Panguni Uthiram, and also on the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple’s website.

Photographs taken at Sunrise today of this year’s Panguni Uthiram

Sembawang beyond the slumber

29 03 2011

Highlights of a heritage tour of Sembawang, “Sembawang Beyond the Slumber”, with a focus on the Sembawang that I was familiar with in the 1970s. This was conducted through the Sembawang Public Library on 27 March 2011. The two and a half hour tour included a visit to the last kampung mosque in Singapore, as well as to several other points of interest in Sembawang:

The Sembawang of the 1970s was a place that I spent many a happy moment at. Back then, it was a place that, as with many of the coastal areas of Singapore, had the air of a sleepy part of Singapore where one could escape from the hustle and bustle of the urban world that I had in brought up in. The Mata Jetty at the end of Sembawang Road had then been the focal point of many of the seemingly long journeys to the northern most area of Singapore, dominated then (as it is now) by the huge shipyard around which life seemed in those northern part, to revolve around.

The destination that first brought me in contact with the post Naval Base Sembawang of the 1970s, the Mata Jetty.

The shipyard was to many who lived in the area, a source of sustenance, having provided a living to many who settled in the area since it started life as the repair dockyard of the largest Naval Base east of the Suez (said to have enough berthing space to take in the entire Royal Navy fleet at that time) over the 1920s culminating in the opening of the dockyard’s graving dock in 1938. Opened by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas on 14 February 1938, the King George VI dock (fondly referred to as KG6), was then the largest ever naval graving dock, one which is still very much in use today. The establishment of the dockyard had been a godsend, coming at the time when a slump in rubber prices meant that many who worked in the area which had depended very much on the rubber plantations introduced by Lim Nee Soon would have had an uncertain future. The dockyard attracted many from far and wide and was responsible for the establishment of the largest community of Malayalees in Singapore in the north. The announcement of the pullout of the British forces in 1968 had cast a shadow of doubt on the future for many who worked there as well as in many of the military bases around the island, coming at a time when a newly independent Singapore was struggling to find its feet, with the bases combined contributing to 20% of Singapore’s GNP. The establishment of a commercial shipyard on the site of the dockyard (the dockyard was transferred to the Singapore government for a token fee of $1) on 19 June 1968, had however, secured the future for many.

The shipyard which was established on the site of the former naval dockyard brought much life to the areas around Sembawang in the 1970s.

The Dockyard’s gates seen in the 1960s (source:

By the time I started frequenting the jetty, the British had disappeared, and the ANZUK forces installed in place. By the time 1974 arrived, it was only the New Zealand Force SEA that was left with the withdrawal of the Australian Forces, and their presence didn’t go unnoticed in the area – with “The Strip” – a row of shop houses at Sembawang Village which contained several watering holes including the popular Nelson Bar being a popular hangout. Sembawang Village , established outside the Naval Base’s Sembawang Gate on Admiralty Road had several “makan stalls” including a row of Indian stalls that was popular for Mee Goreng as well as having hosted a bicycle shop that perhaps supplied the families of the many British, Australian and New Zealand military personnel that passed through the area, Cheap John’s which is still in the area – further down Sembawang Road close to Sembawang Shopping Centre.

Sembawang Village grew on the outside of the Sembawang Gate of the former Naval Base, catering to many who lived on the base (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait).

“The Strip” around Sembawang Village, provided watering holes for the many foreign servicemen in the area, which included the popular Nelson Bar.

“The Strip” seen in the 1970s (Source: ANZ Military Brats of Singapore).

Sembawang Village was also where Cheap John’s – a popular bicycle shop started some 40 years ago, was located. The shop is still around, currently located further south along Sembawang Road close to Sembawang Shopping Centre (Source: ANZ Military Brats of Singapore).

Cheap John’s at its current location is still very much a source of bicycles for Sembawang residents.

Despite the presence of the foreign military personnel, it was probably the workers of the shipyard that were responsible for perhaps rousing Sembawang from its slumber in the 1970s, bringing much colour and life not just to the villages that provided housing to many of them, but also to the streets around. One of the sights that greeted the early morning scene along the narrow Canberra Road that wove its way past the old Canberra Gate (another of the former gates of the Naval Base), of which one concrete pillar remained close to a bus stop that always looked busy with the comings and goings of the many schoolchildren who attended the few schools along the road, and the extended Chong Pang Village which grew to the west of Canberra Road all the way to the marshy land on the banks of the Sungei Sembawang, was that of the convoy of bicycles, their riders in the colourful overalls marked with the seahorses that Sembawang Shipyard had adopted as its logo.

Canberra Gate along Canberra Road in 1968 – near the junction with Sembawang Road. (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait)

A scene reminiscent of the Sembawang of the 1970s and 1980s – the stream of bicycles along a part of Canberra Road that has remained relatively unchanged.

Along Canberra Road across from the area where Sembawang Mart is today, the sight of a Hindu temple set in a clearing would greet the traveller. That was what was the original Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple built in the 1960s around an altar to Lord Murugan set up by a dockyard worker. It was at this temple where a annual festival which provided the area with much colour, Panguni Uthiram, involving a procession of a chariot and a kavadi procession, was first celebrated in the area in 1967, a tradition which continues till today, with the temple having moved to a new location in Yishun Industrial Park A in the 1990s.

The old Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple off Canberra Road (source:

The area still plays host to the annual Panguni Uthiram festival, which now takes a different route. The festival was first celebrated at the old temple in 1967.

There were several other houses of worship which rose up prominently along some of the main roads of the area as well: the distinctive St. Andrew’s Church, built in 1963 to serve British Military personnel in the area along Admiralty Road close to what had been Sembawang Gate, which is still around; Masjid Naval Base which was close to the junction of Delhi Road and Canberra Road (since demolished); and the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea (now in Yishun) at the corner where Canberra Road branched off from Sembawang Road. One that was in an obscure location – nestled in the wooded coastal kampung area to the east of what is today Sembawang Park, in the Malay Settlement, Kampong Tengah, established by the British to house Malay dockyard workers, the Masjid Petempatan Melayu, built from the 1960s right up to the 1970s when the bulk of it was completed, is also still around in a setting very much unchanged (except that the kampung around it has since deserted it), having been granted an extended lease of life on a temporary basis. What the future holds for the mosque, dubbed the “Last Kampung Mosque in Singapore”, no one really knows, as Mdm. Zaleha of the mosque’s management committee laments … Today, the mosque comes alive during the school holidays, with camps run by the mosque for Muslim schoolchildren being a popular activity. One of the participants of the walk thought that it would be a nice idea to set up a holiday campsite in the area for schoolchildren of other religions as well.

Masjid Petempatan Melayu Sembawang – the last kampung mosque in a kampung setting.

Mdm. Zaleha of the Mosque’s Management Committee speaking to two of the participants.

Around the St. Andrew’s Church is the area dominated by the stately residences of the military personnel, many of which were built in the 1920s and 1930s as the Naval Base came up, both to the north of Admiralty Road all the way to the coast, and to the south towards Canberra Road. Many of the houses, referred to as “Black and White” houses for the way in which they are painted, are still there today, housing military personnel from the US Navy’s Logistics Base which now occupies part of what was the Stores Basin of the Naval Base just west of Sembawang Park. The former Stores Basin is also occupied in part by the Sembawang Wharves, run by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), established in the 1970s when it was vacated by the British. Sembawang Wharves had since been associated with timber, rubber and container imports, as well as being at one time one of the entry point for cars imported to Singapore.

St. Andrew’s Church, built in 1963 for the British Military personnel and their families.

Sembawang has a generous distribution of “Black and White” houses built in the 1920s and 1930s to house military personnel and their families.

The Stores Basin seen in 1962 (source: Part of it is used as a US Navy Logistics Base and the rest is part of PSA’s northern gateway, Sembawang Wharves.

In the cluster of Black and White houses south of the park, along Gibraltar Crescent, there is an interesting find – an entrance to a bunker engulfed by a Banyan Tree that has grown over it – a scene similar to that which greets a visitor at the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple complex in Siem Reap. Bunkers were commonly found nestled amongst the houses – most have been covered over now, including one at Gibraltar Crescent of which the only evidence left is a grass mound, as is one that used to greet the eye behind Beaulieu House.

The entrance of a WWII bunker engulfed by a Banyan tree along Gibraltar Crescent.

Another view of the bunker’s entrance.

Speaking of Beaulieu House, it is one of a few buildings in the area with conservation status, having been granted that in 2005. Built as a seaside home of a wealthy plantation owner in the early 1900s, it was acquired by the British military as the Naval Base was being built, serving as a home for the engineers and later for senior naval officers and it is mentioned that from 1940 to 1942, an Admiral Geoffrey Layton, the Commander-in-Chief for Britain’s China station stayed at the house and the house was occupied by Senior Fleet Officers after the war. The URA’s write-up on the house mentions that the name was derived from a certain Admiral Beaulieu, a Chief of Staff of the Royal Navy, but makes no mention of whether he stayed there.

Beaulieu House started life as a seaside home of a wealthy plantation owner, before being taken over by the British as the Naval Base was being constructed in the 1920s. Beaulieu House was included URA’s conservation list in 2005.

Beaulieu House, overlooks what was referred to in the 1970s as the Mata Jetty, being located at the end of Mata Road, which took one past two Muslim graves at a bend under a tree close to the fence line of the former Stores Basin. The jetty brings with it many memories of the smell of rotting fish used as bait in square bamboo framed crab traps weighed down by lead weights wrapped at each of its four ends of the frame, tied to the jetty with nylon or raffia twine. What comes back as well to me are the burnt planks and the railing-less sides and end off which a car was driven off at high speed in 1975. The waters around the jetty were great for harvesting shrimps with butterfly nets while wading in the eel and puffer fish infested waters. The shrimps eyes stood out when a light was shone in the water and that enabled one with a quick hand to scoop them out with the net. These often ended up over an open fire which we often built on the beach – the smell of fresh seafood over the fire and the crackling sounds that accompanied them as they cooked are still fresh in my memory.

Beaulieu House overlooks the Mata Jetty which was built in the 1940s and is today a popular jetty for fishing and crabbing.

Other buildings in the area which have some form of conservation status include Old Admiralty House which has been gazetted as a National Monument in 2002, and the former Sembawang Fire Station which was given conservation status in 2007, both of which we did not visit due to physical limitations. Old Admiralty House on Old Nelson Road (just across Canberra Road from Sembawang MRT Station), a two-storey brick bungalow housed the Commodore, Malaya and Officer in Charge of His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore.Constructed in 1939, iIt was later used as was the official residence of the Commander-in-Chief, Far East Station from 1958 up until 1971, when it was named Admiralty House. The URA also provides some information on the former Sembawang Fire Station (which is now within the grounds of Sembawang Shipyard): “built in the 1930s, this two-storey concrete building is designed in a simplified Art Deco-Modern style and has an elegantly proportioned fire-hose tower. The building is a local landmark for both the Sembawang area and the Shipyard”.

Admiralty House, built to house the Commodore Superintendent of the Dockyard and later used to house the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Far East Station was gazetted a National Monument in 2002.

Another building with conservation status is the former Sembawang Fire Station built in the 1930s with its distinctive fire hose tower. The building is within the premises of Sembawang Shipyard.

The last stop was perhaps the highlight for many, a visit to the site of the hot springs that has long been associated with the area. The hot springs, dubbed “Sembawang Hot Springs” was for much of my younger days, associated with the Seletaris bottling plant that came up in 1967 under a subsidiary of soft drink giant Fraser and Neave (F&N), Semangat Ayer Limited. The existence of the spring, based on a heritage guide published by the HDB and the National Heritage Board, had been known as far back as 1908 (which a book written by Song Ong Siang, “One Hundred Years of the Chinese in Singapore” puts as 1909), when a Municipal ranger called W. A. B. Goodall discovered it. The land owner, a certain Mr Seah Eng Keong proceeded to start bottling the water under the brand “Zombun” soon after, after he had established that it was safe to drink, establishing the Singapore Natural Mineral Hot Springs Company. F&N bought the company over in 1921 and bottled the water right up to the war under several brands which included “Zom”, “Salitaris”, “Singa Water” and “Vichy Water” until the Japanese Occupation, during which the Japanese built thermal baths in the area. This was destroyed during an allied bombing raid on Singapore in November 1942 which interrupted the flow of the spring water to the surface and on advise of a geologist after the war, F&N left the spring until flow was naturally restored in the 1960s. When Semangat Ayer’s bottling plant was established in 1967, there had actually been plans to build a spa in the area – but that never took off, and bottling continued until the 1980s, when the land on which the spring was on was acquired by the Government to build an airbase. That would have sounded the death knell for the hot spring and if not for an outcry from the local community, we might have seen the last of the only hot springs on mainland Singapore. A corridor was built in 2002 within the perimeter of the airbase along Gambas Avenue leading to a concrete base with standpipes which channel the spring water to taps, allowing the public use of the hot spring which is thought to have curative properties for several ailments. As several of the participants were to find out, the water which reported flows out at 65 degrees Celcius, does, based on its acrid smell, have some Sulphur content which is said to be useful for the treatment of skin problems.

Sembawang Hot Springs was the source of Seletaris – a brand of mineral water bottled by F&N’s subsidiary, Semangat Ayer Limited up to the 1980s (source:

The visit to the hot springs brought back memories of another part of Sembawang that I was fond of, one that was accessible through a road Jalan Ulu Sembawang that lay at the back of what is now the Seletaris Condominium complex, developed by F&N on the site of part of what had been the Seletaris Bottling plant. A little stub of the road is still left, but no more than that. The road had once provided access to a vast area of farmland and fishing ponds – rising up onto a crest of a hilly area that overlooked what had seemed like rolling plains of vegetable farms. My father had in the 1970s and 1980s been fond of driving along the road just for that view … one that I remember as being one of the most picturesque in Singapore. The road lead to the Lorong Gambas and Mandai area which many who did National Service in the 1970s and 1980s would remember for the training areas they contained. Like much of what was around Sembawang, that is now lost, as is the large Chong Pang village that dominated much of the are south of the Naval Base which was demolished in 1989 after residents moved out in 1986 or so. Much of the area now occupied by the new Sembawang HDB estate. The plot of land where the heart of Chong Pang was, the roundabout near which the Sultan Theatre stood and where some of the best food in Singapore could be found, still lies empty, with plans to build a sports complex over the area. While that has gone, there are still many reminders that remain – particularly the areas on which the Black and White houses are located, the jetty and of course the old kampung mosque. There are also some reminders of the traditions that existed, the stream (albeit a smaller one) of bicycles heading down Canberra Road being one … and there is the most colourful one of all – the procession of kavadis that still make its way down once a year … on a different route, but one that reminds us of what Sembawang is all about, beyond that apparent slumber.

The Ulu Sembawang area was very scenic with its rolling slopes of vegetable farms (source:

The area was also home to several fishing ponds (source:

A lesser known Hindu festival with a Kavadi procession: Panguni Uthiram

20 03 2011

Panguni Uthiram 2016: The Full Moon of Panguni

Panguni Uthiram 2015: Panguni Uthiram 2015 in photos

Panguni Uthiram 2014: Colours of April

Panguni Uthiram 2013: The Silver Chariot returns

Panguni Uthiram 2012: The sun rises on a Sembawang tradition

My first encounters with the Panguni Uthiram festival which is celebrated annually during the full moon of the Tamil month of Panguni would have been at the time when I was doing a stint in Sembawang Shipyard in the 1980s. One of the few temples in Singapore that celebrates the festival, the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple had then been located in a clearing off Canberra Road on which I would pass through on a daily basis on the way to and from the shipyard from where I was residing in Ang Mo Kio, and was the end point of a much shorter Kavadi procession that would take place with the festival. That then took a route starting from where the laundry shop was at the junction of Canberra and Ottawa Roads, down Canberra Road, left into Dehli Road and into Kowloon Road before continuing back up Canberra Road and ending at the temple.

The Panguni Uthiram Kavadi procession takes place annually on the full moon of the Tamil month of Panguni. The procession used to take place along a route that included Canberra Road, Dehli Road and Kowloon Road within the old Royal Navy Naval Base up until the 1990s when the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple moved from Canberra Road to Yishun Industrial Park A.

Young participants at this year’s procession.

I guess it was a little too early for one of the boys …

Up to that point in time, I had only been aware of the maybe more publicised and highly visible Kavadi procession that took place down Serangoon Road, Selegie Road, Clemenceau Avenue and Tank Road every Thaipusam, and it came as a surprise to me that there was another one that took place after Thaipusam in what was then a world far removed from the one that I had known as a schoolboy in the heart of the city.

A Vel Kavadi carried during the procession. Up to the 1980s, it was something that I was familiar seeing only during the Thaipusam festival.

Panguni Uthiram is celebrated in March or April in which the month of Panguni coincides with. Based on information from various sites, I understand that the full moon of the month is chosen as the star Uthiram and Pournami which is the full moon are seen together, and the festival commemorates the marriage of several deities which include Parvati and Parameshwaran, as well as Murugan and Deivanai. The Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple’s website also provides an indication of when the festival was first celebrated there, which was in 1967 during which six carried the Kavadi in honor of Lord Murugan who is also known as Sri Balasubramaniar. The temple has since moved (in 1996), to its current location in Yishun Industrial Park A, and the procession, which is preceeded on the eve of the full moon by a chariot procession during which a chariot, a representation of the chariot in which Sri Balasubramaniar is believed to use on his annual visit to his devotees on Earth, now takes place along Sembawang Road, close to the area where Sembawang Village was, down Canberra Link and on to the new temple site at Yishun, a distance of about one and a half kilometres.

The starting point for this year’s procession on Sembawang Road, across from Durban Road – the route now moves down Sembawang Road, turning left along Canberra Link on to the site of the new temple.

The festival took place on 19 March this year, and it being a Saturday, I had the opportunity to catch it along Sembawang Road at the break of dawn and again in the evening when I was able to also observe some of the preparations made by the participants at the marquee at the holding area which was across Sembawang Road from Durban Road. It was certainly a humbling experience seeing an extreme act of faith in action and so caught up was I in it that I somehow forgot about the time staying an longer than I had originally planned to and only realising it after an hour beyond the time I had planned to leave had passed. On the evidence of what I saw and the thousands that had participated in one way or another, the festival is still very much alive, as it had been when I had first come across it a quarter of a century ago.

I was able to observe some of the preparations this year …

Photographs taken during the 2011 Panguni Uthiram procession in Sembawang

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Arriving to the light of the rising sun.

The crowd at the preparation area at the break of the day.

Setting off with Kavadis of Milk Pots.

An early Vel Kavadi bearer.

Two ladies carrying Milk Pots.

More Milk Pot bearers making their way down Sembawang Road.

Moving a Vel Kavadi into the preparation area.

Potrait of a Vel kavadi bearer.

A participant offering a gift.

Another participant bearing a Vel Kavadi.

The face of a participant.

Another participant preparing to have his chariot “allagu” Kavadi attached to hooks on his back.

Attaching the chariot …

A Vel Kavadi.

Vels …

A participant having Vels attached to his body.

Ready to go …

A drummer at the preparation area … use of drums and other musical instruments are now banned along the procession route.

Another Vel Kavadi bearer ready to go.

Attaching a Vel.

Piercing the end of Vels into the skin.

Blessing with fire.

A Kavadi bearer in a trance like state.

Milk Pot Kavadi bearers receiving blessings before setting off.

The face of a participant having hooks attached to his back.

A Milk Pot bearer with her tongue pierced with a Mounam Kavadi (Silent Kavadi).

A blessing along the procession route.

A young participant bearing a Kavadi.

Portrait of Vel Kavadi bearer.

More information on the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple, its history and the history of the temple’s celebration of Panguni Uthiram as well as photographs of the original temple off Canberra Road can be found at the temple’s website at this link.

Forgotten with time: Chong Pang Village

17 01 2010

With the help of an old map, and some sketchy memories of the village at which we would stop over at to get our supplies for the fishing and crabbing trips we used to make to the jetty at Sembawang end, as well as some old photos of the area courtesy of Mr Derek Tait, author of “Memories of Singapore and Malaya” who spent some of his childhood years in Singapore in the 1960s, and some from the National Archives, I was able to get a better impression of what Chong Pang was like in the 1970 and early 1980s. Taking a walk around the area, I could perhaps retrace some of the steps I had taken down the streets of Chong Pang, as I must have done in the early 1980s with Paul, an apprentice with Sembawang Shipyard, whom I had befriended during a six month stint I had with Sembawang Shipyard. Paul had come over from Kulai in Southern Johor, as many of the shipyard workers once did, and rented a windowless room in a wooden shack, which he once showed me. The wooden shacks of Chong Pang, as well as of Canberra Road, housed the thousands of Malayalees and Malaysians who worked at the shipyard. In the mornings and evenings, Canberra Road would be filled with streams of these shipyard workers dressed in the light blue coveralls of the shipyard, cycling to and from the shipyard.

Chong Pang Village erased: An open field slated for the development of a sports complex where the once bustling village used to stand, while a new public housing estate Sembawang rises in the background.

Today, the area where Chong Pang once stood bears very little evidence of the bustling village that once occupied the area. Most of the roads associated with the village have disappeared: the main part of the village centered around Chong Pang Road and the roundabout where the Sultan Theatre stood and around which some sumptuous hawker fare could be found in the evenings, is now a clear plot of land, that is, based on plans for the area, to be used for the construction of a sports and recreation complex. The roads on the other side of the road, where I remember there was a market of sorts, have similarly disappeared, a “Land for Sale” sign sticking out prominently where wooden shop houses once stood.

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978

Chong Pang Village as it used to be: Looking up Chong Pang Road towards the area where the roundabout with the Sultan Theatre was located.(Source: National Archives of Singapore).

The spot where the junction of Chong Pang Road with Sembawang Road once was, as it is  today.

A view of the junction of Chong Pang Road with Sembawang Road in 1968 taken northwards towards Canberra Road (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait)

A view of the junction of Chong Pang Road with Sembawang Road southwards. (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

There is maybe some evidence of Kedondong Road – what appears to be remnants of a paved road peeps out from the grass where the road once joined Sembawang Road. Further north, what used to be a fork in the road, the right branch being the continuation of Sembawang Road, the left, Canberra Road – which led to the Naval Base and was later the road leading to the shipyard which inherited the former naval dockyard after the pullout of the British forces. The gate that stood on Canberra Road still stood for sometime after as evidence of the former Naval Base. Canberra Road has since been widened, bearing little resemblance to the Canberra Road of old. A Catholic church, Our Lady Star of the Sea, which has since relocated to the Yishun, used to stand at the corner, near the start of Canberra Road.

Evidence of where a village road once stood: What’s left of Kedondong Road?

Village Scene in 1985 (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Village Scene in 1985 (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Row of Shops (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Wooden Shacks that housed the many shipyard workers who lived in the area (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea – a photo taken in 1992 (Source:

Where the Star of the Sea once rose: the site of the old Catholic Church, Our Lady Star of the Sea

The Junction of Sembawang Road, Sembawang Avenue (new) and Canberra Road today, looking at Canberra Road. A hawker centre built in the 1970s used to stand in the area on the right of the bus. Canberra Gate used to stand a little further up Canberra Road.

Canberra Gate along Canberra Road in 1968 – near the junction with Sembawang Road. (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait)

Where the market area once was … now a plot of land for sale

Jalan Sendudok, one of the few roads still left

Area around the market along Sembawang Road.

Area around the market along Sembawang Road (posted in the Old Sembawang Naval Base Nostalgic Lane Facebook group).

The only part of the area that is maybe still recognisable is just south of where the village was: the Jalan Tampang and Jalan Legundi area, where the rows of shop houses still stand. The row along Jalan Legundi used to house the Cola Restaurant, a popular place for steaks, which later became Jack’s Cola Restaurant.

View of the row of shophouses along Jalan Legundi, from Jalan Tampang in 1968 (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait). The Cola Restaurant in the corner later became the Jack’s Cola Restaurant. At the other end of this row is the coffee shop which serves the popular Chye Lye Fish Head Curry. What stands on the field now is the hawker centre which once was the Yishun Village Seafood Restaurant.

A more recent landmark in the area, what used to be a rather run down looking Sembawang Shopping Centre, on the opposite side of Sembawang Road from JalanLegundi, was put up in the mid 1980s and was a popular destination for shoppers looking a bargain on music CDs. The shopping centre has since been rebuilt, and the chain that was build on the back of the sales of music CDs has closed, a victim of online music downloads. North of the area, a new public housing estate, Sembawang stands where the swamps around the Sungei Sembawang once stood. There is an area which is named Chong Pang in Singapore, left perhaps as a reminder of the old village, some 3 miles south of the village, bustling it is with a market popular with people living in the area, but nothing like how the old village was.

Map of the Chong Pang Village area, 1968 (extract of a 1968 HM Naval Base Map).More: