The tanks at Tanjong Berlayer

22 12 2014

The impressions I have long held of the Tanjong Berlayer area were ones formed by the road journeys to the area of my early years. That came at the end of the 1960s when the squat cylindrical tanks at the end of Alexandra Road would be the signal that I was close to my journey’s end.

Dawn over the land on which the Maruzen Toyo / BP refinery had once stood, a landscape once dominated by oil tanks.

Dawn over the land on which the Maruzen Toyo / BP refinery had once stood, a landscape once dominated by oil tanks.

An aerial view of Tanjong Berlayer in 1966, showing the BP refinery (source: National Archives of Singapore).

An aerial view of Tanjong Berlayer area in 1966, showing the BP refinery (source: National Archives of Singapore).

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The BP refinery storage tanks (photo online at https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/753/20557489428_aaea44065e_c.jpg.

The end of the same journey is today greeted by very different landmarks. The tanks, emblazoned with what had been the recognisable British Petroleum (BP) shield, are no longer there, having belonged to a refinery that has since been shut. The land on which the refinery had operated on has been empty since the end of the 1990s, and it is now a host of other structures, including that of the 42 storey PSA building, that is what catches one’s attention.

PSA Building and not the oil tanks, is one structure that will now catch one's attention at the end of Alexandra Road.

PSA Building and not the oil tanks, is one structure that will now catch one’s attention at the end of Alexandra Road.

The opening in 1962 of the small 28,000 bpd refinery at Tanjong Berlayer, Singapore’s second, coincided with the industrialisation efforts of the early 1960s and came on the back of Shell establishing a refinery on Pulau Bukom in 1961. The refinery had started its operations, not as a BP run one, but as one operated by the Japanese partnership of Maruzen Toyo, supplying fuel to the nearby Pasir Panjang Power Station. What was significant about this was that it represented the first major Japanese industrial investment in Singapore. The Japanese interests in the refinery did not last very long however. It was sold to BP in June 1964, just over two years after it had opened.

An aerial view of the Maruzen Toyo refinery at its opening in 1962 (photograph online at http://www.kajima.co.jp/).

With the redesignation of the area’s land use preventing BP from extending its lease in the longer term, it decided to pull-out from the refining business in Singapore in the mid-1990s. Operations at the refinery stopped in 1995, with BP maintaining the site as a storage facility for a few more years before returning it to the State in 1998. Subsequently cleared, the site had been left empty until today, awaiting a transformation that is promised as part of the future Greater Southern Waterfront. And, as with the Keppel Bay area on which the former repair docks of the Harbour Board and later Keppel Shipyard were sited to the site’s immediate east, the transformation will erase what little has been left to remind us of a time and a place we seem only to want to forget.

A fire-fighting exercise at the BP Refinery in 1968 (source: National Archives of Singapore).

A fire-fighting exercise at the BP Refinery in 1968 (source: National Archives of Singapore).

The site today.

The site today.

The landscape will eventually be dominated by the futuristic structures of the Greater Southern Waterfront.

The landscape will eventually be dominated by the futuristic structures of the Greater Southern Waterfront.





The end of the line?

7 04 2011

The disused Jurong Line has been very much in the news of late. This may in part be due to the interest in the railway brought about by the knowledge that we will soon see the last of the Malayan railway running through Singapore. There is of course some focus brought on to the Jurong Line in particular by a proposal by members of the Nature Society of Singapore (NSS) to establish a green corridor on the land which the line runs through. What has motivated the latest spate of reports in the news has very much a bearing on the latter, with a proposed road over a part of the area where the line runs through bringing some consternation to proponents of the green corridor and some anguish amongst residents of a quiet residential area, Faber Heights, which straddles a particularly green piece of land through which the line passes through, the news and the start of work on the road catching many by surprise.

The corridor through which the disused Jurong Line runs through is part of a proposal by members of the Nature Society of Singapore to establish a Green Corridor along the old railway lines.

The corridor through which the Jurong Line runs branches off at Bukit Timah Station, and stretches close to 20 km to the end of Shipyard Road near the Benoi Basin. A large part of it has probably remained in a close to natural state, relatively untouched by development since the line was constructed in the mid 1960s. The line which is essentially an extension of the main line, was intended to serve the new industrial estate then taking shape in Jurong, and the irony is that it is the line that has probably saved much of the greenery along the corridor it runs through from the fate that befell the area on which the industrial estate it was meant to serve was built on. It is along the corridor that we now find ourselves hanging on not just to the greenery it has helped preserved, but also to habitats for bird life, as well as to a way of life that once existed in the rural parts of Singapore.

Much of the railway corridor is untouched by the wave of development that has swept over Singapore over the last half a century.

Leaves and a fruit of the mulberry tree along the green corridor.

It was for this, as well as an interest in the railway for which I had originally participated in a NSS organised walk in January, during which I was greeted by many scenes resembling that of a rural Singapore that I had stored only in my memory. It is along the some of the more accessible parts of the green corridor that we can discover all this: small plots of vegetables, fruit trees and the forgotten smells of the countryside, all on what is former KTM land that has been returned to the State, which has somehow been tolerated by the authorities. The plots are spread along the area close to Teban Gardens, and also along a wedge of land between Sungei Ulu Pandan and the northern fringe of Clementi, and walking through the area, we are able to appreciate a little bit of what we could soon be losing should plans to develop some of the areas get the go ahead.

The start of another walk down the green corridor.

Walking along the tracks brings us to a green part of Singapore.

Vegetable plots along the green corridor - a welcome sight in an urban landscape.

Small scale farms can be found all along the stretch behind Teban Gardens and in the wedge of land between the northern fringe of Clementi and Sungei Ulu Pandan.

A makeshift scarecrow set amongst banana trees?

In a recent walk during which I joined some of the advocates of the Green Corridor in a familiarisation walk through part of the corridor, I could observe that work on the road has indeed started, the evidence being the hoardings put up in the area where the road is being constructed and clear signs that parts of the disused track have been removed. The proposed road at Faber Heights, intended to ease congestion in the area (and also to serve a suggested expansion in residential units in the area), does cut through what is an area of lush greenery that features what must be a natural creek or a pond, a rare find in the Singapore we have now grown accustomed to. Hearing some of the older participants on the walk reminisce about their childhood exploits in and around similar ponds and creeks into which they would often venture into barefoot in search of a harvest of longkang fish – something that the children of today would find hard to appreciate.

Signs that work has started on the proposed road in the Faber Heights are is very much in evidence.

Work includes the dismantling of the track in the approach to the Faber Heights area.

A stretch where the tracks have been completely removed.

Another look at the area where the tracks are now missing.

The pond or creek at the Faber Heights area - will it be affected?

Part of the track that is still with us ... but for how long more?

Participants on the walk photographing remnants of the track in the Faber Heights area.

It would probably be a case of having to move a mountain to stop the wave of development that has and is still very much sweeping thought the island, but there is a growing number of voices that have been added to the cause to save the area as well as to establish a green corridor. There is certainly hope that the authorities lend a year to the cause … and if there are sufficient voices that are heard, who knows, it is possible that a mountain is about to be moved.

Water Hyacinth - once a common sight - used a pig fodder in the days of old.

The smoke from offerings being burnt in a rural shrine along the green corridor.

Not green but the brown of a roll of corrugated cardboard ...

Kettles on a stove as it might have been in the rural Singapore of old.

The trunk of a fallen tree ... along the green corridor.





The anatomy of an industrial estate

1 02 2011

These days, industrial estates are very much a feature of Singapore’s landscape outside the city as much as the HDB public housing estates are. Many would not bat an eyelid at the clusters of uninspired high-rise industrial buildings that dot the landscape. Built to house light industries, these high-rise factory buildings, referred to as flatted factories, were “imported” to Singapore at the time of the rapid industrialisation programme of the 1960s.

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Singapore’s very first flatted factory (right) at Commonwealth Drive.

Prior to the building of the first flatted factories, light industries such as metal working, shoe making, textiles and paper products manufacturing, had been accommodated in a mix of low rise units. Many operated out of pre-war shophouses or makeshift wooden and zinc -factories – some of which may have been squatting on state land.

Redevelopment, as well as the pressing need to develop new factory space for light industries to fuel growth, saw Singapore look towards Hong Kong, where the mainstay of the economy had been its small manufacturers. The building of multi-storey factory buildings, which provide large amounts of inexpensive factory space close to its urban centre – close to its source of labour and also where there was easy access to transportation, had proven a great success.

High rise industrial buildings, very much part of the landscape of today’s Singapore, were introduced in the 1960s. The idea was borrowed from Hong Kong, which pioneered the provision of low cost factory units housed in multi-storey buildings for the small enterprises that were a mainstay of its economy.

A pilot programme initiated by the Economic Development Board, gave us the first flatted factory buildings in 1966. Built at Tanglin Halt, Bendeemer, Kallang and Kampong Ampat, space in the five-storey flatted factory blocks were quickly taken up and many more were built.

This success also led to private investment in flatted factories. Along with those built by that were built by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), there were also many privately developed multi-storey factory blocks that have cropped up all over Singapore over the years.

The first flatted factories were rarely over 5 stories high and built without lifts, these days, they are typically higher.

Along with those built within the boundaries of public housing estates such as Queenstown and Toa Payoh, large clusters of flatted factories also came up in light industrial estates. One such estate is the Kolam Ayer Industrial Park, which features a rather interesting mix of private and JTC built flatted factory buildings.

The industrial park, is perhaps best known for the names of its roads. Some such as Tannery Lane, shed some light on the industrial  history of the area. There are others that have puzzling origins – such as one with the strangest of names, Kallang Pudding Road.

It is suggested that the pudding in the name originates from the pokok puding, Malay for the croton plant – a commonly seen shrub with variegated leaves. A road that served as a “shortcut” for my parents on their drives back from the Kallang area to Toa Payoh, where we lived, in my younger days; my overactive imagination had it as being a reference to the pudding I thought the swamp that once occupied the area had been.

The name of the area, Kolam Ayer, which was at the confluence of the Kallang and Whampoa Rivers, alludes to it having been a body of water (it means a basin, pond or pool of water in Malay). Old maps show it as a huge tidal swamp – part of a much bigger Kallang Basin than the one we know today and one around which industries such as sawmills thrived. The maps also show the municipal dump and an incinerator that operated in the area up until 1959.

A huge inland reclamation project in the area commenced at the end of 1961. Earth recovered from the major public housing project that was taking shape in Toa Payoh was apparently used. Carried out with the intention of transforming the basin, which covered a total area of some 405 hectares, into Singapore’s second industrial estate.

The first phase of the project was completed in 1969. At that point, some 3.8 million cubic metres of earth was used in filling up 154 hectares out of an area of 182 hectares that would have been submerged at high tide.

Kolam Ayer Industrial Park is a mix of private and government built flatted factory units and low rise light industrial building which was built on a site of a huge swamp at the confluence of the Kallang and Whampoa Rivers which was reclaimed in the 1960s using earth from Toa Payoh.

New buildings started coming up on the reclaimed land from the late 1970s , with the bulk, including those erected by the JTC, built in the early 1980s. The estate is probably one of the more interesting industrial areas to wander around. coloured by a mix of old and new factory buildings – some of which sit on seemingly small plots of land.

The mix provides a completely different feel to ones built at one go. It isn't the lack of uniformity or its regular warehouse sales where one can pick up a bargain or two that makes the estate interesting; if one looks hard enough, there are also some rather interesting culinary offerings that certainly will alter one's perception of what an industrial estate can be all about.

One of the flatted factory buildings which colour the Kolam Ayer Industrial Park.





The human train to the Sunset

24 01 2011

It was on a fine Saturday morning, that I decided to take a four and a half kilometre walk that was organised by the Nature Society of Singapore, along a part of the industrial history of a Singapore that was still finding its feet in the uncertain climate that had surrounded Singapore in the 1960s. It was at a point in time when Singapore was contemplating joining what was then referred to as the Federation, the Federation of Malayan States, better known as Malaya, that work on the Jurong Industrial Estate, a massive project that played a significant part of the island nation’s rapid industrialisation in its early years. There is no doubt that the transformation of a marshy and hilly ground which would have been unsuitable for development had the effort that flattened the hills and fill up the swamps over a 3.5 hectare area to not just build an industrial complex, but provide housing and amenities in the area to the workforce that cost hundreds of millions – the biggest single project that had been taken on by the forward looking self-government and the brainchild of the then Finance Minister, the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee, contributed much to what was later, a newly independent Singapore’s economic success. Along with the industrial complex that was to set Singapore on its feet, there was of course the big effort to provide infrastructure to support the massive project, which included a somewhat forgotten extension to the railway network on the island, the old Jurong Line.

The now abandoned old Jurong Line was built in the 1960s to serve the Jurong Industrial Estate which was being developed.

The line runs through a corridor which has been relatively untouched by the modernisation that has overtaken the island over the last four decades and forms part of a proposal by the Nature Society of Singapore to preserve the former railway corridors as Green Corridors.

Jurong was in my childhood, one of the ends of the earth, being in what I had envisaged as a forsaken part of the island, good only for the seafood at Tuas village, that meant the long ride along the long and winding old Jurong Road that took one past the creepy stretch where the old Bulim cemetery was located. It was also the object of many school excursions to the area which had in the 1970s, the Jurong Birdpark added to the list of attractions that meant the long ride on the chartered bus which would pass the wonderfully wide tree lined avenue named International Road and culminate in the smell that we would always look forward to with anticipation – that of the aroma of chocolate that would invariably waft out of the Van Houten factory that stood on Jalan Boon Lay. It was only later that I came to know Jurong much better, spending 16 years of my life working in a shipyard at the end of Benoi Road.

The human train over the old railway line ...

It was around when I had first started work there that I started to notice the old Jurong Line, only once spotting a train passing over a level crossing that might have been at Tanjong Kling Road, not significant enough to have caught a mind that was distracted by the early days of my career. I had of course known about the bridges – a truss bridge, similar in construction and appearance to the glorious truss bridges of the main Railway Line that gives the Bukit Timah area some of its distinctive character, that crossed the Sungei Ulu Pandan that was visible from Clementi Road on the double decker bus service number 74 that I occasionally caught home from Clementi during my days in Singapore Polytechnic, as well as a less distinct on that crossed the Pandan River. Beyond noticing the obvious signs of the Jurong Line, I never did find the urge to learn about it until maybe a recent bout of nostalgia for the railway in Singapore brought about by the news that we will see the last of the trains crossing the island come the first day of July this year prompted the urge in me to explore what is now a disused line, and so when I heard of the ramble organised by the Nature Society, I decided to get dirty and muddy in the effort to learn more of the line.

The truss bridge across the Sungei Ulu Pandan at Clementi is a very well recognised landmark.

The walk along the line started at Teban Gardens, which itself was a housing estate that owes its own development to Jurong Industrial Estate which it sits on the fringe of. The estate was constructed in the early 1970s to supplement low cost housing in the area which had been in high demand, as more people found jobs in the Industrial Estate. The first flats were completed in 1976 by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) which had been the body responsible for the development of the Indistrial Estate and the flats in the area – along with other JTC developed housing estates in the west of Singapore, have a distinct character compared to the estates developed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) during that time. The start of the walk in the setting of the fast rising sun, allowed the plots of vegetables and fruit trees to be revealed along that part of the corridor along that area on the approach to the abandoned tunnel that runs under Jurong Town Hall Road, a scene reminiscent of some of the rural scenes of Singapore that I had hitherto thought had been lost in the wave of development that has swept over Singapore. It was nice to return to the that Singapore for a while and take in the “fresh” country air that came with what appeared to be the ample use of fertilizer on the plots of vegetables.

Crossing what were the tracks at Teban Gardens.

A scene perhaps from the rural Singapore of old - small scale farming takes place along some tracts of land through which the corridor passes.

More scenes from what rural Singapore might have once looked like.

It was refreshing start to the walk which continued through one of the five tunnels that the line had featured when it was operational, along with eight steel bridges, three of which we walked across or walked by. Built at a cost of S$5.9 Million by the Malayan Railway with a loan from the Economic Development Board (EDB), construction on the line started in 1963 and was only completed in 1966 with total of 19.3 kilometres of tracks laid, although a public run was made as early as in November 1965. The first service commenced with its opening by Dato Ahmad bin Perang, the then General Manager of the Malayan Railway on 4 March 1966. The line, which branched off at Bukit Timah station and ran under a tunnel across Clementi Road towards the west, ended up at Shipyard Road behind the Mobil Refinery which was then being constructed, with a branch line running to the National Iron and Steel Mills (the estate’s first factory) and Jurong Port, and had apparently not been as well used as envisaged, and operation of the line finally ended in the mid 1990s without much fanfare, with the land being returned to the State and lies abandoned for the close to two decades that have passed.

The line featured five tunnels, including this one running under Jurong Town Hall Road.

Another view through the tunnel ...

The light at the end of the tunnel

The line also featured eight steel bridges, including this girder bridge across the Pandan River, along its 19.3 km of tracks from Bukit Timah Station to Shipyard Road and Jurong Port.

The abandonment was certainly pretty much in evidence throughout the walk, not just with “Danger” signs pretty much rendering the tunnel and the bridges along the route places we should have really avoided walking through or on. Trudging through the dark and dingy tunnel certainly wasn’t a walk in the park as the thick layer of mud that lined the ground meant a slow trudge towards the light at the end of the tunnel which was a small opening in the zinc sheet that was meant to prevent access into the tunnel at the other end. The first of the bridges we passed was the one across the Pandan River, which looked a little worse for wear and was boarded up to prevent access to it. After that, it was through the Faber Gardens corridor where besides the obvious signs of the abandoned tracks, some being overrun by the vegetation, there were also some nice bits of nature to take in, with even a creek that showed evidence of a swamp in the area with some swamp plants being very much in evidence. It was in the area where two members of the Shield Bug family said hello without giving off the almighty stink that they are known for. This certainly is reason enough to support the Nature Society’s proposal to turn the rail corridors into green corridors.

Signs of abandonment were pretty much in evidence all along the tracks ... this one at the east end of the tunnel ...

... and one at the Pandan River bridge ...

A train undercarriage's eye view of the bridge over the Pandan River.

An unspoilt part of Singapore - a creek by the old Jurong Line ... one of the compelling reasons to support the Nature Society's proposal to turn the areas around the tracks into a Green Corridor.

Shield bugs ... not uncommon, but rarely seen in urban Singapore these days.

Nature disturbed by the line but relatively unspoilt.

and in some instances, reclaiming their place on the old abandoned tracks.

More evidence of nature reclaiming the areas around the abandoned tracks.

It wasn’t long before we got to the Sunset Strip – the area behind Clementi Town along the Sungei Ulu Pandan that leads up to Sunset Way. That was where we walked into the Chinese temple and a few more reminders of a rural Singapore that is no more, including a water hyacinth pond (water hyacinth ponds were commonly seen as these were often used as fodder for pigs as well as in ponds treating pig waste in the old kampungs). From there, it was across first the rickety old truss bridge that the lack of maintenance on it very evident and looks as it it would be destined for the scrap yard unless my friends in the Nature Society have their way … that provided an excellent photo opportunity and despite the signs warning us not to cross and the clear evidence of a structure that bears the scars of being left in the hot and humid environment without any renewal made of coatings that would have kept the corrosive effects of the environment at bay, proved to be a safer bridge to walk across than the operational ones along the Bukit Timah corridor. It wasn’t far then for the human train to reach the sunset – Sunset Way – where another bridge – a grider bridge provides an overhead crossing over the road … where the short, but very interesting walk ended, leaving me with a much deeper impression of the old Jurong Line, and certainly of the proposal to turn the corridor into a green corridor, which I hope, won’t as the old Railways across Singapore, ride and fade into the sunset.

A temple by the former Railway land along the Sungei Ulu Pandan.

More scenes of what rural Singapore might have been like in the area around the temple.

Crossing the truss bridge across Sungei Ulu Pandan ...

Another view across the truss bridge.

The last leg of the walk towards Sunset Way.

The girder bridge over Sunset Way.

The view across the girder bridge at Sunset Way.