The fire station at the 8th mile

9 06 2015

One of those things almost every young boy dreams of becoming is a fireman. I had myself harboured ambitions of becoming one at different points during my childhood; the inspiration coming from picture books and what I must have caught on the television and perhaps from the constant reminder I had in the form of the rather eye-catching Alexandra Fire Station, which was close to where I lived in Queenstown.

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station, a landmark in my many road journeys.

The fire station at the 8MS, Bukit Timah Fire Station, a landmark in my many road journeys and a fire station of old marked by a distinctive hose-drying tower.

Sadly, that station is long gone. The monster of a building that replaced it, besides housing a fire station, also has a police centre operating from it. Without the distinctive hose-drying tower and red doors, the new building, unlike the stations of old, is no longer one to fuel the aspirations of childhood, and certainly not one in which I am able to reconnect with days that I often wish to return to.

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That connection to my youthful days can fortunately be found in several other fire stations of old. Of these, the pretty red and white Central Fire Station, Singapore’s oldest and now a National Monument is still in operation. That, in the days of my childhood, loomed large at the far end of a street now lost, Hock Lam Street, along which I often found comfort in a bowl of its famous beef ball soup.

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Two others that I regularly set my eyes upon, while still around, are no longer operational. One is the red brick former Serangoon or Kolam Ayer Fire Station, along Upper Serangoon Road. Now reassembled, having been moved due to the construction of a road where it had stood, the station was one that was close to my second home in Toa Payoh.

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The other was Bukit Timah Fire Station. Sited at the 8th milestone Bukit Timah, it was close to the giant Green Spot bottle that stood tall at the Amoy Canning Factory (see: a photograph of the Green Spot bottle  on James Tann’s wonderful Princess Elizabeth Estate blog) and was at the foot of Singapore’s highest hill. The station stood out as a landmark in the many road journeys of my childhood. The pair (the station and the giant replica bottle) seemed then to mark the edge of the urban world and on the long drives to the desolate north and the wild west, the sight of them would represent the start of the adventure on the outward journey, and would signal the return to civilisation on the journey home.

The former station, just after its closure (online at http://m5.i.pbase.com/u41/lhlim/upload/22296575.DSCF0029_02.jpg).

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station has a mention in the National Heritage Board’s Bukit Timah Heritage Trail booklet. This tells us that it was in 1956, the fourth fire station to be built; a fact that I assume is in relation to the stations that were built for the Singapore Fire Brigade, coming after Central Fire Station and the sub-stations at Geylang and Alexandra. Kolam Ayer (Serangoon), built for the volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service in 1954 would have already been standing at the time. That only came under the Singapore Fire Bridage in 1961, following the disbandment of the volunteer force. Another station that would have existed, was the Naval Base Fire Brigade’s Sembawang Fire Station. Built in the 1930s, the station’s building is now conserved.

Signs of very different times.

Signs of very different times.

Bukit Timah sub-station’s appearance, is perhaps one of the strongest clues to its vintage, its clean and understated elegance is typical of the 1950s Modernist style. One of the few adornments on its uncluttered façade, is a coat of arms. That of the Colony of Singapore, it is also is a telltale sign of when the station would have been commissioning – the coat of arms was in use during the days of the Crown Colony from 1948 to 1959.

The coat of arms of the Crown Colony.

The coat of arms of the Crown Colony.

The station is designed in the 1950s Modernist style.

The station is designed in the 1950s Modernist style.

The station’s grounds, also speak of the past. Besides a sign slowing us down to 20 miles per hour, there are many other signs of the times, the most noticeable of which would be the now recoloured low-rise apartment blocks. The blocks provide evidence of days when the various services provided for the accommodation needs of servicemen and their families as well as point to a period in our history when Singapore, even if administered by the colonial masters as a separate entity, was a part of the greater Malaya. It would have been common then to find men in service hailing not just from the Crown Colony but also from parts of the Federation. The seven three-storey blocks, each with six comfortably proportioned apartments, are in the company of a single storey house at the back, which would have been the residence of the station master.

The former firemen's quarters, seen in 2010.

The former firemen’s quarters, seen in 2010.

Some of the apartment blocks today.

Some of the apartment blocks today.

A view through a wall to the former station master's residence.

A view through a wall to the former station master’s residence.

Having been in operation for close to half a century, the station was to close its red doors for good in 2005 when a larger and modern replacement at Bukit Batok Road was built. Missing from the new station was the hose-drying tower that once seemed to be the defining feature of a fire station. The introduction of machines to handle tasks such as the drying of hoses meant that stations built from 1987, starting with the one in Woodlands, would take on a new appearance.

The ladder up the hose-drying tower.

The ladder up the hose-drying tower – something firemen are no longer required to climb.

The entrance to the hose-drying tower.

The entrance to the hose-drying tower.

One of several former stations still standing, only the buildings belonging to Bukit Timah have found interim uses. These were initially leased out by the State for three years in April 2008 to serve as a venue for corporate events, adventure camps, arts, education and sports.

A world recoloured.

A world recoloured.

Letter boxes where hoses were once hung.

Letter boxes where hoses were once hung.

Since then, the premises has seen a second master tenant leasing the property on a 2+2 year term, with whom it was relaunched as a lifestyle and education hub in 2012. Besides the take-up of units in the former quarters by businesses running enrichment activities aimed at the young, there is also a food and beverage outlet that now operates out of the station’s former garage.

The former station's red doors, seen in 2010.

The former station’s red doors, seen in 2010.

A F&B outlet now operates from the former garage.

A F&B outlet now operates from the former garage.

As of today, the buildings do not have conservation status. There is hope however for their future retention, even if the current edition of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan seems to suggest otherwise. A Request for Proposal (RFP) for a Concept Master Plan for the Rail Corridor initiated by the URA identifies the former station as one of four activity hubs for which shortlisted teams are required to submit a concept design in which the buildings are retained and “repurposed for uses that complement its function as a gateway into the Rail Corridor(see A new journey through Tanjong Pagar begins).

Now a enrichment hub, will it be a future gateway to the Rail Corridor?

Now a enrichment hub, will it be a future gateway to the Rail Corridor?

It would certainly be a cause for celebration should this happen. The station, as one of the last to survive from an era during which the area developed as a industrial corridor and as a prominent landmark, serves not just as a link to the area’s development and history, but also as a reminder of a Singapore we might otherwise be quick to forget.

The hose-drying tower and one of the blocks of the former quarters.

The hose-drying tower and one of the blocks of the former quarters.

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The second part of the walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: The mysteries around Hillview

24 10 2010

Leaving the compound of St. Joseph’s Church (Bukit Timah) with the sun peeking through the clouds, after a pause in our trek down Upper Bukit Timah Road, it was a good time to get reacquainted with the railway track side of the road. We crossed the overhead bridge which provided a wonderful vantage point from which I was able to take in the tremendous changes that the area, which lies in the shadow of Singapore’s tallest hill, Bukit Timah Hill, has seen over the three to four decades since I had first become acquainted with it. Somehow, it didn’t seem that long ago when I would view the area from the backseat of my father’s car en route to an adventure across the causeway or on a visit to the orchid nursery in the Teck Whye area which was run by a friend of my mother. There was a time as well – that would have been in the 1980s, when I did pass through the area on my own – on my way to a friend’s place up on Chestnut Drive, when the road was a lot narrower and the area around seemed a lot less built up.

The area where the tracks run opposite St. Joseph's Church.

After another pause at an area by the train tracks, accessible from the main road as what has become a popular short-cut had been trampled through the vegetation from Hillview Avenue, where we were able to have a wonderful view of what we could imagine of as a pass that was carved through a hill and where we were treated to a dash of bright blue in the form of a White-Throated Kingfisher perched on a branch of a tree by the tracks , we made our way south towards a building that had served for many years as a landmark in the area. The building is the Standard Chartered Bank branch building at the entrance to Hillview Road – a building from which I could count the number of bus stops to ensure I stopped at the correct one, on a side of the road that had once been devoid of any form of landmarks to identify where one was – especially in the dark of night. I would be always be reminded by my friend to stop at the second bus stop after seeing “Chartered Bank” – which had stood at the same spot – almost unchanged since it was first opened in April 1957.

A view of the "pass" near Hillview Avenue.

The tracks, looking north, near the shortcut to Hillview Avenue.

The Chartered Bank, a popularly referred to landmark in the area, as it looks today.

The Chartered Bank branch building at Bukit Timah seen at its opening on 6 April 1957 (source: The Free Press, 16 April 1957).

The view from Upper Bukit Timah Road of the entrance to Hillview Road had in itself, always interested me since the days of my backseat adventures. Hillview Road, and Hillview Avenue beyond it was one area that my father never seemed to go through. Looking through the narrow passage under the concrete supports of the railway girder bridge that runs across Hillview Road – always seemed to somehow suggest a sense of mystery of what lay beyond – the rise of the road beyond the bridge obscuring what lay beyond the little that was visible through the passage under the bridge. It was only much later in life that I actually discovered, to a sense of disappointment, what had lay beyond the bridge, on a visit to the Lam Soon Building during the early days of my working life. Later – the road would be one that I would become familiar with, on the many visits made during the course of my work to the installation that stands at the top of Bukit Gombak. By that time of course, much of the area that had in fact been one that was home to many factories in my days of adventure, being where the likes of the Union Carbide and Castrol factories had been located – had been turned into an area where many new sought after private condominiums had sprung up.

The narrow passage under the girder bridge at Hillview Road always seemed to suggest what lay beyond it was a mystery.

On top of the girder bridge at Hillview Road.

The other side of the "pass" near Hillview Avenue.

A scene of what's left of rural Singapore ... found along the railway tracks in the Bukit Timah Corridor - just next to the girder bridge at Hillview Road.

Across the road from the Standard Chartered Bank, I was pleasantly surprised to see a very recognisable distinctive roof structure proudly stood atop a hill – one that I had been familiar with in my days wandering around the area close to St. Joseph’s Institution in Bras Basah Road as a schoolboy there at the end of the 1970s, and one that had hitherto remained unnoticed by me. It is of course the roof of the church that is part of the Trinity Theological College, and is identical to the one on top of the building that was church of the same college, that still stands today – at the original location of the college atop Mount Sophia, next to what had been the Methodist Girls’ School – close by the shortcut I had used to get over to Plaza Singapura as a schoolboy.

The roof of the Trinity Theological College church - identical to its predecessor on the top of Mount Sophia.

The buildings that used to be part of the Trinity Theological College on top of Mount Sophia.

Crossing back to the other side of the road to the Fuyong Estate area where Rail Mall is, we were able to get on the side where the tracks crosses Upper Bukit Timah Road over the first of the two black truss bridges that I have somehow always identified the area with, pausing again for some photographs of the bridge. What is nice about the bridge is the arched pedestrian passageway through the concrete supports of the bridge on the footpath below. Getting a first glimpse of the bridge – I was able to appreciate the beauty of the riveted steel structure that has given the area its distinct flavour for close to eight decades. What I was also able to appreciate was the amount of effort that it would take to maintain the bridge if it was to be conserved once the railway has no use for it when the terminal station is moved from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands – something that perhaps might prove prohibitive in any considerations taken be the authorities for their preservation – something that many of us would like to see.

The Rail Mall is close to the first of the black truss bridges on the southward journey down the Bukit Timah Corridor.

The view of the black truss bridge from the Rail Mall area.

The northbound view of the black truss bridge from the tracks.

The southbound view along the tracks from the black truss bridge.

Another view of the tracks up the black truss bridge.

The arched pedestrian passageway under the bridge.

Further along Upper Bukit Timah Road – we came to the area opposite the Old Ford Factory – I guess we would all be familiar with the factory and its significance in Singapore’s history as this is already very well documented. A lesser known fact about the area is perhaps the existence of a keramat – one that as some believers would have it, had a part to play in the cessation of fighting (prior to the surrender of the British to the Japanese at the Old Ford Factory) during the Second World War. That keramat, the Keramat Habib Syed Ismail, also popularly referred as the Keramat Batu Lapan – a reference to its location at the eight milestone of Bukit Timah Road, had laid in a clearing across the railway tracks, through a path into the seemingly thick vegetation that had existed in the area. The keramat was excavated several years ago and doesn’t exist today. The keramat, one that is of an Indian Muslim saint, was said to have been where Muslims had prayed for an end to hostilities during the Japanese invasion in early 1942 and fighting had as some would have it, stopped miraculously just across the road – making the keramat a highly venerated shrine for many years that followed.

Another view of the black truss bridge ... the bus is heading south towards the area where the old Ford Factory and the site of the former Keramat Batu Lapan is.

The ridge of the hill where the former Ford Factory, which was once an busy assembly plant for Ford Cars, also featured Hume Industries – a steel maker to the north – and it was these greyish structures that would come into sight on the southbound journeys in the backseat before one of my favourite sights along the way would come into view – the huge Green Spot bottle that stood at the entrance to the Amoy Canning Factory which stood next to the Bukit Timah Fire Station, close to what had been a traffic circus. The station was one that was in fact typical of the Fire Stations found in rural Singapore and much of Malaysia in the1960s and 1970s – one that had with it flatted quarters for the firemen and their families. Interestingly – there is also a crest on the station that I noticed passing by – one of the old Coat of Arms of Singapore – similar to the one that can be found atop Mount Emily at the entrance to Mount Emily Park – just next to Mount Sophia. Further along the way – where again private housing now stands across the road opposite the area close to where the entrance to Hindhede Road is – there was another factory on the ridge – one with a logo painted on the wall that was well known to me – from the many ice lollies that I had feasted on as a child, the Magnolia Factory.

The old Singapore Coat of Arms on the former Bukit Timah Fire Station.

Similar to the one that appears at the entrance to Mount Emily Park.

The former firemen's quarters next to the former fire station.

The rest of the trek took us to another another girder bridge, past Jalan Anak Bukit across a notorious shortcut to Rifle Range Road, past the other black truss bridge and onto our end point – Bukit Timah Station – something I guess I would have to find time later to prepare a post on.