The changing landscape at the ninth mile

15 06 2013

One part of Singapore where the landscape has seemed to be in a state of constant flux – at least in more recent times, is the area from the 9th to the 10th milestone of Bukit Timah. The area is one that has long been associated with the old railway, being one of two locations in the Bukit Timah area where an overhead railway truss bridge can be found, and where the train used to run quite visibly along large stretches of the length of the road.

Seeing the tailend of the trains the area is very much associated with - train operations ceased on 30 June 2011.

Seeing the tailend of the trains the area is very much associated with – train operations ceased on 30 June 2011.

A passing train in the 9 1/2 mile area - the stretch was one where the trains running close to the road were quite visible.

A passing train in the 9 1/2 mile area being captured by a crowd in June 2011 – the stretch was one where the trains running close to the road were quite visible.

The truss bridge at the 9th milestone.

The truss bridge at the 9th milestone.

The ninth milestone area is now in a state of change.

The ninth milestone area is now in a state of change.

Another view northwards.

Another view northwards – road widening work is very noticeable.

A train running across the bridge seen just before the closure of the railway in 2011.

A train running across the bridge seen just before the closure of the railway in 2011.

Now abandoned by the railway – the railway ceased operations through Singapore with its terminal moving to Woodlands Train Checkpoint on 1 July 2011, the bridge does remain as what is perhaps one of two reminders of the railway, the other being the two rows of single storey houses facing Upper Bukit Timah Road straddling Jalan Asas which we now know as The Rail Mall, which in being named after the railway, does help to preserve its memory.

The row of single storey houses straddling Jalan Asas in 1989. The houses have since been converted into The Rail Mall.

The row of single storey houses straddling Jalan Asas in 1989. The houses have since been converted into The Rail Mall (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Cordeiro).

Another photograph of what today has become The Rail Mall.

Another photograph of what today has become The Rail Mall (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Cordeiro).

All around the area, the construction of  Phase II of the Downtown Line (DTL) of the Mass Raid Transit System (MRT) which started before the railway abandoned it, is very much in evidence. The work being done has left little in its wake untouched, with a wedge being driven between the two carriageways which make up Upper Bukit Timah Road at its junction is with Hillview Road, just north of The Rail Mall, and disfiguring much of the area as we once know it.

9 1/4 milestone Bukit Timah now dominated by new kids on the block as well as cranes and construction equipment.

9 1/4 milestone Bukit Timah now dominated by new kids on the block as well as cranes and construction equipment.

Local model and TV host Denise Keller with sister Nadine seen during a Green Corridor organised walk in the area on the final weekend before the train operations ceased in June 2011.

Local model and TV host Denise Keller with sister Nadine seen during a Green Corridor organised walk in the area on the final weekend before the train operations ceased in June 2011 – even since then, there has been quite a fair bit of change that has come to the area.

Looking down Hillview Road from the junction, we now see that two landmarks in the area which have survived until fairly recently, have also fallen victim to the developments which will also see roads being widened – a major widening exercise is currently taking place along Upper Bukit Timah Road. A railway girder bridge which looked as if it was a gateway to an area it hid which had housing estate and factories which came up around the 1950s and 1960s, has already been dismantled. That went soon after the railway did. Its removal does pave the way for the road to eventually be widened, thus permitting the private residential developments intended for the vacant plot of land that was occupied by the former Princess Elizabeth Estate. The land for the estate, based on newspaper reports from the 1950s, was a donation by Credit Foncier intended for public housing made to the Singapore Improvement Trust in 1950 and has somewhat sacrilegiously been sold off to the highest bidder.

A train crossing the now missing girder bridge at Hillvew Road in early 2011.

A train crossing the now missing girder bridge at Hillvew Road in early 2011.

Along with the bridge, a building that has long been associated with the corner of Upper Bukit Timah and Hillview Roads is another structure we would soon have to bid farewell to. Completed in 1957 as a branch of the Chartered Bank (which later became Standard Chartered Bank), the building has also long been one of the constants in the area. When the branch vacated the premises early this month, it would have have seen some fifty-six years and two months of operation at the building, having opened on 6 April 1957.

The recently closed Chartered Bank branch building with a notice of its closure.

The recently closed Chartered Bank branch building with a notice of its closure.

Rendered insignificant by hoardings, towering cranes and construction equipment – as well as more recent buildings in the vicinity that now dominate the landscape, the bank building occupying the corner of Hillview Road on a little elevation was one that, in greener and quieter days, was not missed. It provided great help to me as a landmark on the bus journeys I took to visit a friend’s house up at Chestnut Drive, two bus stops north, back in the 1980s.

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

The bank as it looked in 2010.

It would probably take a few more years for the dust in the area to settle. And judging by the way developments seem to be taking most of what did once seem familiar, by the time the dust does settle,  there may be little for us to make that connection with the world  the area did host in days that already seem forgotten.

A last look at a landmark soon to vanish.

A last look at a landmark soon to vanish.

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The land beyond the tenth mile

13 06 2013

An area of the former rail corridor I did have some interaction with back in 1986 was the area just north of the level crossing that goes across Choa Chu Kang Road, up to Stagmont Ring. That was during a stint lasting several months that I had at Stagmont Camp while doing my National Service. The quickest way to get from camp to the bus stops at Woodlands Road was down the hill on top of which the camp was perched, past what then was left of a village, across the Pang Sua canal (which we  had to down into to cross it), over the railway tracks and out to the main road.

A missing link in the rail corridor - one of the rail girder bridges which has been returned to Malaysia.

A missing link in the vicinity of Stagmont Camp, the girder bridge at the 10th mile, one of the rail bridges which since been dismantled and returned to Malaysia.

Looking south to where the level crossing across Choa Chu Kang Road once was. The LRT line is a more recent addition to the landscape.

A southward view down to the level crossing across Choa Chu Kang Road. The LRT line is a more recent addition to the landscape.

A wooded area where the village through I took a shortcut once existed.

A wooded area where the village through I took a shortcut once existed.

The canal which I would have to cross ... a plank was laid across the recess through which water normally flowed.

The Pang Sua Canal which I would have to cross … a plank was laid across the recess through which water normally flowed.

Crossing the tracks.

The area of the railway tracks we used as a shortcut.

The proximity of the tracks to the camp, which housed the School of Signals, meant that it also made a convenient location for signal line-laying training  – which as a trainee at the school during the latter half of my stint, I was to be involved in, often finding myself, in the company of one or two of my fellow trainees, trudging up and down the area of the tracks, oblivious to the danger being by the tracks did pose. The training exercises required us to lay the lines, and then carrying out fault-finding and maintenance on the lines.

Evidence of line-laying exercised before the tracks were removed in August 2011.

Evidence of line-laying exercised before the tracks were removed in August 2011.

On one occasion, the training exercise involved a desperate search for a missing rifle – one I myself had left behind, somewhere along the tracks. It was probably a good thing that it was along the tracks that I had left it, as much to my relief, I did manage to recover the rifle after just half an hour of backtracking and groping in the dark with the help of the two other members of the detachment I was in. I shudder to think of what the consequences might have been if I had not found it – word was that it could mean seven years in the detention barracks.

The rail corridor in the area before the tracks were dismantled.

The rail corridor in the area before the tracks were dismantled – the tracks was a convenient place to conduct signal line laying training.

One of the areas we did find ourselves on our exercises was the Stagmont Ring area where the Mandai Gate Crossing was. As it was mostly in the dark that we did see it, I don’t quite have much of a visual picture of the area and a set of photographs I did came across recently is a godsend and does quite clearly show the area as it might then have been. The photographs are ones taken by Henry Cordeiro, a frequent visitor to the area in the second half of the 1980s – around the time I was based there. The photographs, which Henry has given his kind permission for me to post do show the gate hut (and the gateman’s quarters) on the side of the tracks across from the most recent gate hut which was demolished early this year.

The road bridge over the Pang Sua Canal at Stagmont RIng Road with the crossing and gate hut seen beyond it  in 1989 (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Corderio).

The road bridge over the Pang Sua Canal at Stagmont Ring Road with the crossing and gate hut seen beyond it in 1989 (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Corderio).

A view of the road bridge and former crossing site today.

A view of the road bridge and former crossing site today.

The gate hut in 1989 (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Corderio).

The gate hut in 1989 (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Corderio).

The signal hut at Stagmont Ring Road (Mandai Gate Crossing).

The more recent gate hut seen in August 2011 around the time the railway tracks were being removed. The termite infested hut was demolished early this year.

The crossing seen in late 2010.

The crossing and hut seen in late 2010 while the line was still in operation.

The crossing on the side of the road opposite the hut in 1989 (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Corderio)..

The crossing on the side of the road opposite the hut in 1989 (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Corderio)..

A provision shop on the side of the road opposite the hut in 1989  (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Corderio).

A provision shop on the side of the road opposite the hut in 1989 (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Corderio).

Another view of the hut in August 2011.

Another view of the hut in August 2011.

The crossing on the side of the road opposite the hut already paved over in August 2011.

The crossing on the side of the road opposite the hut already paved over in August 2011.

A trolley loaded with gas tanks - used for the cutting of the tracks in August 2011.

A trolley loaded with gas tanks – used for the cutting of the tracks in August 2011.

One in Henry’s set of very valuable photographs is a rather interesting one from 1986. That shows metal framework on concrete supports built to carry pipes across the canal which we still see today. This and the road bridge are one of few reminders left of the sights around village. In the same photograph, we can also see the roofs of huts belonging to what Henry refers to as “Stagmont Ring Village” (or Yew Tee Village). If we look at the same area today (a photograph of which follows Henry’s photograph), we do see how the village rather than the trees then towering over the village huts, has “grown”.

Stagmont Ring Village seen across the Pang Sua Canal in 1986 (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Corderio).

Parts of Yew Tee Village seen across the Pang Sua Canal in 1986 (photograph used with the kind permission of Henry Corderio).

The same area today - showing how the village has "grown".

The same area today – showing how the village has “grown”.

The old photographs do show that much has changed. The zinc roofed wooden huts that once were common in an area I had up to then always thought of as the countryside, have all disappeared, replaced in a large part by new dwellings and flats which are part of one of the more recent “villages” of modern Singapore, Choa Chu Kang. The new housing estate is made up mainly of towering Housing and Development Board flats which extends the spread of what did start off as the Teck Whye Estate, close to Stagmont Camp. Despite the developments in the area, there is still a substantial amount of greenery left in and around the former rail corridor. It may be a matter of time before much of that does get developed as well, but as long as it hasn’t been developed, there is hope that considerations are made to incorporate what has in the last two decades or so developed into a lovely piece of woodland into the developments being planned for the rail corridor (which will be retained in some way as a continuous green corridor) that will certainly be of great benefit to the wider community.

Along the Pang Sua Canal close to Stagmont Ring Road today is still very green.

The woodland along the Pang Sua Canal close to Stagmont Ring Road today is a lovely green area.

The former Yew Tee Village - now dominated by the towering blocks of the new Singaporean village.

The former Yew Tee Village – now dominated by the towering blocks of the new Singaporean village.

The area around the rail corridor is still very green.

The area around the rail corridor is still very green.

It would be nice to see the now very green areas adjoing the former rail corridor also included in some of the rail corridor development plans.

It would be nice to see the now very green areas adjoing the former rail corridor also included in some of the rail corridor development plans.





The mosque at the 778.25 km marker

16 05 2012

It was a year ago that interest in the former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line that ran through Singapore started to peak as the realisation hit many in Singapore that the last days of the railway line were upon us. Many embarked on their own journeys through Tanjong Pagar Station to have the experience of the railway and a journey through the grand old station. There were many who also explored the land on which the railway ran on foot – catching glimpses and taking snapshots to remember a world that was about to change forever. Whether it is from the vantage of the rail carriage or from the ground, there is no doubt many would have realised that a world far apart from the one we lived in existed along the corridor along which the railway ran through, one that in many ways took one, without leaving Singapore’s borders, far away from Singapore.

Masjid Hang Jebat as seen from a passing train. Many otherwise hidden parts of Singapore, some which takes us far away from the Singapore we now know, could be seen from the trains that used to run through Singapore.

One of the places along the corridor that would certainly have been noticed is a cluster of zinc roofed buildings close to where the 778.25 km distance marker was, a place if one was on the northbound train one would pass about 7 minutes out of the station just around the bend after passing under the Gillman Flyover and Alexandra Hospital. The cluster of buildings belongs to the Masjid Hang Jebat, a mosque that lies not on railway land but on a part of Singapore, Wessex Estate, that once was home to British army personnel. It is to Wessex Estate that the mosque owes its establishment; but that it exists to this day is probably a result of the railway that ran beside it – protecting the area from being developed all these years. The name of the surau and later the mosque, comes from Jalan Hang Jebat in Wessex Estate, at the end of which the mosque stands.

The mosque as seen in July 2011, just after the cessation of KTM railway services to Tanjong Pagar.

The 778.25 km marker that once stood close to the mosque.

The setting for the mosque certainly takes one far from the Singapore we have come to know. Set amid the wonderful greenery that the area is blessed with, the coconut palms that tower over the mosque and the cluster of banana trees reminds us of an old Singapore we have quickly sought to forget. On one of my recent visits to the area, a man emerges from the cluster of buildings now decorated with green floral motifs and greets me. He is Jimmy – the man who apparently is behind what now decorates the buildings. Jimmy tells me that the motifs are fairly recent addition, painted on to coincide with the Prophet’s birthday. “The decoration changes every year,” Jimmy says, going on to explain that he was the artist behind the decorations.

The rural setting in which the Masjid Hang Jebat is in.

All evidence of the railway has since been removed.

As I step through what looks like a little canteen that is reminiscent of the ones we find in the villages across the Causeway, Jimmy relates how he has been connected to the mosque since he was a young boy. He then lived in a block of flats in Queens Crescent which has since been demolished and has come to the mosque ever since. Saturdays he says are especially busy days at the mosque and like he did in his younger days, many come for religious instruction (including intending converts to the religion) and to play Sepak Takraw in the yard.

The recently decorated hall.

The artist, Jimmy, posing for a photograph.

It was in fact in serving the residents of the area, Queens Crescent being one, as well as nearby residential clusters in the early days of Queenstown that included Queens Close, Stirling Road and Tanglin Halt, that was instrumental in seeing what was started as surau, a prayer room, expand into the mosque it is today. The surau was built in the early 1960s exclusively for use by Muslim serving in the British forces based in Wessex Estate, in what was an area that was fenced-up (although many in the area managed to find a way in). With the British withdrawal in 1971, the surau and the land on which it sits on were opened up and donations were collected to expand the prayer room into a mosque to accommodate the growing population in the area.

Warong Hang Jebat … a stall set in the mosque’s canteen that is reminiscent of village stalls across the Causeway.

Today, the mosque sits in relative silence, no longer serenaded by the sounds of the railway, evidence of has been removed. It is a refreshing escape from the noise and haste of the new world that Singapore is, but for how long, we don’t know. Behind the mosque, a clump of banana trees reminds me of a world we have long since abandoned. I observe a few kampung chickens coming down from a wooden coop running freely around the grassy area by the banana trees. The chickens, I am told, had until recently been wild – having emerged from the surrounding vegetation after the railway stopped running. That perhaps is a sign that the wild world that was once part of the railway land will inevitably be tamed … My hope is that tamed it is not and the wonderful parts of that world which still are there such as this mosque, will still be there to remind us of that gentler world from which the cold grey one we now live in once came from.

A clump of banana trees reminds me of a gentler world we have long abandoned.

Behind the mosque … a chicken coop holds village chickens that until recently, had run wild.

A view of the mosque from a path that leads to Wessex Estate.

Kampung Chickens.