No longer the land that Fairy Tales are made of …

9 11 2010

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

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

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

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

Another view of the same fenced area along Netheravon Road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another view of the semi-detached unit.

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

The inside of Chalet L in 1987.

Chalet L today.

The barbecue pit at Chalet L in 1986.

The barbecue pit today.

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Once Tanah Merah …

16 08 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline …

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

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

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

tanah-merah

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