The Tunnel

15 06 2012

In a part of Singapore where the remnants of an old world finds itself cloaked in the garments of the new, lies a relic that even in the new garment that it wears, is one in which I am often reminded of halcyon days that accompanied what is now a lost childhood. The relic, a now underused and largely ignored pedestrian underpass, is one that I am well acquainted with from those days, days when family outings often involved visits to the sea shore to enjoy the cool of the evening breeze. The Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk, as Esplanade Park was more commonly referred to then, was a popular choice with my parents. Its stone benches provided a wonderful place to sit and enjoy the breeze, as well as a vantage from where we could watch the dance of lights, flickering lights of the ships in the harbour that coloured the darkness for as far as the eye could see.

The pedestrian underpass under Connaught Drive today – corrugated metal sheathing once lined its walls.

I had always looked forward to visiting the Esplanade. It wasn’t just for the sights it offered and the cool evening breeze, but also where there was chendol (a sinful dessert made with shaved iced, coconut milk, bits of green jelly shaped like worms and sweetened with palm sugar) to die for which came from a semi-circular food centre located close to where the Stamford Canal spilled into the sea. There were also the itinerant vendors to look forward to – the kacang putih seller with a table load of nut filled canisters balanced on his head and the balloon vendor who held up a colourful bunch of balloons that in the days when helium filled balloons were rare, were air-filled and held up by a long tubular balloon. It was however not the chendol or the vendors that would most interest me, but the underpass under Connaught Drive which my sister and I would refer to as ‘the tunnel’, a passage through which was always necessary to take us from Empress Place where my father would leave his car to the Esplanade. I would never fail to take the opportunity to stamp my feet as I passed through it, not in a show of temper, but to hear the echoes of the sound it made that bounced off the corrugated metal sheathing that had then lined the walls of the tunnel.

Singapore’s first overhead bridge in Collyer Quay, opened a month and a half after the underpass at Connaught Drive (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The tunnel, I have discovered, was completed in the days when Singapore was a part of its now northern neighbours. It was built to ease the flow of traffic which in stopping to allow pedestrians to cross, was reported to have backed-up all the way to the Merdeka Bridge. Those were days when Connaught Drive served as a main thoroughfare that took traffic (reportedly some 4,200 vehicles and hour at its peak) from Nicoll Highway into the commercial heart of the city. Built at a cost of some $85,000, the 28 metre tunnel which is about the width of a road-lane at 2.4 metres, was opened on 23rd February 1964 – just before Singapore’s first overhead bridge at Collyer Quay was completed in April 1964. This makes the underpass a historic one, being the first non-conventional (non-surface) pedestrian crossing built in Singapore. That fact is today is largely forgotten, as is the underpass. The recent developments in the area involving roads, public transport, and use of buildings in Empress Place, has seen pedestrian traffic in the area falling off, as well as vehicular traffic on Connaught Drive and the underpass in the context of all that does seem rather irrelevant. What greets me today, is a tunnel that stripped of its corrugated lining, vendors and beggars, contains not the echoes of today’s footsteps, but the silence of one that is forgotten.