Briyani no more …

24 06 2011

The 24th of June saw the last day at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station of the ever popular Ali Nacha Briyani stall. At 11 am on the day a queue of at least 30 people could be seen snaking around the confined space of the M. Hasan Railway food Food Station by the main hall of the station. Some in the queue were seen to be ordering as much as 20 packets of briyani which resulted in the queue reaching lengths never seen before. By 12.45 pm, a green sign was put up to tell customers that the briyani was sold out, bringing an end to the chapter for the outlet at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Fans of the railway briyani may like to know that Ali Nacha would be starting a new chapter at Block 5, Tanjong Pagar Plaza, #02-04.

The media was all over the Ali Nacha Briyani stall, as the queue snaked around to the side of the station building.

The scene at 11.45 am ...

By 12.45 pm, the Briyani had been sold out, brining to an end a chapter for Ali Nacha at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.





A peek into the early days of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

28 05 2011

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station began its life in the fourth decade of the 20th Century, opening with a promise that it was to have been the southern point of a rail network that was to span the continent of Asia and connect to the then well established European rail systems. The vision was an ambitious one, a link would not only be created between Europe and the Far East through the railway, but it would also have the potential to reach across the Pacific and Indian Oceans via sea routes, with Singapore – already then a well established port, serving as the principal gateway.

The first act of the station, was however not as a terminal for the carriage of goods or to see the rush of passengers through its main hall. With the station’s main building close to completion at the end of 1931, it provided a venue for a Manufacturers’ Exhibition that opened on 2nd January 1932.

The exhibition was the first of its kind in Singapore. Coming at a time when the world was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, the exhibition purpose was to bring to light Singapore’s hitherto unheard of manufacturing potential. Providing local manufacturers with a platform to showcase their products and capabilities, the exhibition also helped to promote Singapore’s growing importance as a economic centre in the British Far East – with the very grand looking new station as its centrepiece.

The exhibition’s aim, stated in the official guide, had been “to present as many aspects as possible of actual and potential manufacture in Singapore”. Included amongst the exhibitors were companies that were to become household names in Singapore including the likes of Robinsons, John Littles, Malaya Publishing House (which was to later become known as MPH), Diethelm and the Straits Trading Company. Opened by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, the exhibition also provided many members of the public with their first view of the internals of the main building of the new station.

The main building of the station was first used as a venue for the first Singapore Manufacturers’ Exhibition which opened on 2nd January 1932 (image source: Willis’ Singapore Guide, 1936).

The actual opening of the station to railway traffic wasn’t until some months later on the 2nd of May 1932. This was commemorated with the arrival of a passenger train, the first to pull into Tanjong Pagar. As reported by the Straits Times on 3rd May 1932, it “comprised of an engine and three saloons to travel over the new deviation”. Leaving Bukit Panjang Station at 4.30 pm, it carried a load of guests including the Governor, the Sultan of Perak and Mr J Strachan, the General Manager of the FMSR and arrived “punctually at 5.15”.

In his speech at the opening, Sir Clementi was to explain the motivation for building of a station of such a stature, saying:

We stand here at the southernmost tip of the continent of Asia; and, since the Johore Strait is now spanned by a causeway which was opened for traffic on June 28, 1924, we may even say that we stand at the southernmost top of the mainland of Asia. This point is, therefore, a real terminus as well as a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic; and it is very right that the terminal station of the Malayan railway system should be built at Singapore, the gateway between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and immediately opposite the Tanjong Pagar docks, where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping.

The Governor also added that he had “not the slightest doubt that, for centuries, this Singapore terminal station will stand here as one of the most nodal points in the whole world’s scheme of communications.”

While this, eight decades later, has not quite come true (although we are still talking about a Pan-Asian rail network) for the station, there is little to dispute Singapore position as a transport and communications node in the modern sense. The Governor could not of course have predicted the phenomenal growth that air transportation was to see at that point in time.

The location of the station, across from the docks at Tanjong Pagar, was deliberately selected so that the southern terminal of the what would have been an intercontinental overland railway network could be integrated with ocean shipping and extend the reach over the Pacific and Indian Oceans (image source: Willis’ Singapore Guide, 1936).

The station, one of many of Swan and McLaren’s masterpieces, even in its current state of disrepair, is a wonderful piece of architecture to marvel at and was described by an article in the 7th May 1932 edition of the Malayan Saturday Post as having a “palatial appearance”. Overshadowed by the towering blocks that have come up at its vicinity,an elevated road, and buildings and containers stacked high at  the docks it was meant to feed, it does however take a bit of effort to take in the station’s grand appearance.

A feature of the grand building that is very noticeable is the entrance arches,which are flanked by four triumphal figures. The work of sculptor Angelo Vannetti from the Raoul Bigazzi Studios Florence, they stand guard over all who pass through the arches and into the station’s grand vaulted hallway. Described as “lofty and cool” in the same article, the main hall extends three storeys or some 21.6 metres above the visitor, providing a “sufficient pocket of air” to allow the hall to be kept cool in what even then must have been the oppressive tropical heat. It is this lobby that impresses the most. Six sets of mosaic panels, designed to resemble batik paintings, catch the visitor’s attention immediately.

The main vaulted hall of the station in its early days. An impressive integration of architecture and public art. The lamps and the clock seen in this picture – has long since disappeared, but the hall remains, even in the state the station building is in today, a particularly impressive piece of architectural work. Caption reads ‘Booking Hall, Singapore Station’ (image source: Willis’ Singapore Guide, 1936).

There is a lot more clutter in the hall today … the lamps and the clock we see in the hall in the station’s early days are also missing.

The Willis’ Singapore Guide (1936), gives us an idea of Tanjong Pagar and the operations of the FMS Railway from the station in and  around the time of the station’s opening. It describes the FMSR as running from Singapore for 580 miles to Padang Besar. There it meets the Royal State Railways of Siam.The FMSR also incorporated a 121¼ miles of the Johore State Railway, which was leased to it.

As is the case today, the East Coast Line branched off at Gemas and extended to the port of Tumpat some 465 miles from Singapore. A short branch line connected the line there with the Siamese Railways at Sungei Golok.

We are also told of a branch line connecting Port Swettenham (now Port Klang) with branches also serving other ports along the west coast of Peninsula Malaya. These were at Malacca, Port Dickson, Teluk Anson and Port Weld.

A total of 1321 miles of metre gauge tracks were laid, providing some 1067 miles of track mileage. The guide also provided information on the daily schedule of trains from Singapore to Penang, with a day and night express service run daily. It would then have taken some 22 hours to reach Penang from Singapore and some 9 hours (which doesn’t seem much different from the journey these days) to reach Kuala Lumpur.

The journey in the 1930s to Kuala Lumpur took some 9 hours.

The express train services in 1936 (source: Willis’ Singapore Guide, 1936)

On the evidence of the guide, which I suppose would for first class travel, the service provided does seem a lot more luxurious and comfortable as compared to what we’ve become accustomed to these days. As described by the guide, the Restaurant Car served “an excellent breakfast, luncheon or dinner”, at a “reasonable price”.

Sleeping Saloons with two berth cabins were provided on the night trains (as they are now) and a “commodious Buffet Parlour Car is attached to the night express trains between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur”. Breakfast, tiffin and tea baskets were also available at the principal stations. This could be ordered en route with the “Guard of the trains or any Station Master” who would have been able to “telegraph free of charge”.

Once the last train pulls out of Tanjong Pagar Station, it would bring to an end a little over 79 years of operation of a station that was to see centuries as one of the ‘most nodal points in the whole world’s scheme of communications’.


The information contained in this post has been put together from various newspaper articles and as well as the Willis’ Singapore Guide 1936, to provide a glimpse into the early days of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

More information on the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“.

I also have a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station and if you care to read about them, do drop by my page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Also, if you are keen to find out and support the Nature Society’s (Singapore) proposal to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, do drop by the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. I do also have a series of posts on the Green Corridor if that is of interest – please visit them at “Support the Green Corridor“.






A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station

24 05 2011

Together with a group of yesterday.sg fans, I had another look around Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, on a 45 minute tour run by the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), to provide participants with a better appreciation of Singapore’s latest National Monument, before operations end on the 1st of July this year. Besides meeting with yesterday.sg’s Shaun Wong, from whom I learnt that the inspiration for the name of the website was the Beatles song “Yesterday”, I also had the pleasure of meeting fellow blogger P.Y. of Oceanskies, who incidentally has provided a comprehensive account of the tour, and Belinda Tan who I am grateful to for stirring up quite a fair bit of interest in my blog by posting links to my set of railway memories. The short but informative tour was led by a PMB volunteer, Rosanne, who provided a fair bit of information on the background to the station, the reasons for its establishment and the choice of location. What interested me in particular, was the information that related to the station’s architecture, which provided me with a better appreciation of the station.

I had the opportunity to join a PMB tour of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station courtesy of yesterday.sg.

The station we were told by Rosanne, was built to provide a grand station that was to be the terminal of what the British had envisaged as a intercontinental transport network that was to span from Singapore at the southern tip of the Asian continent to the British Isles. The choice of the location close to the docks at Tanjong Pagar signaled the ambitious extent of the British Empire’s intent in expanding transport and communication links between the British Isles with Asia and further afield, with Singapore’s strategic location being seen as the gateway (by sea) to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Designed by Swan and MacLaren, the station is thought to have been designed after Helsinki’s Central Station and sharing elements with Washington D. C.’s Union Station. The style of architecture, Art Deco, that was selected was one that it was felt combined both Western and Eastern elements and influences. Art Deco is in fact very much in evidence around the station – geometric patterns in the details of the ceiling and arches of the portico an example. Another example of the Art Deco style that is evident is use of triumphal figures in the form of the four Angelo Vannetti sculptures at the façade that represent the four pillars of the Malayan economy, being Agriculture, Commerce, Transport and Industry. Our attention was also drawn to portions of the roof which featured a green tile structure inspired by the roofs of Chinese Temples.

Transport, one of the four pillars of the Malayan economy is seen carrying a stone block, with a wheel behind, stepping on a bow of a ship. The use of triumphal figures is common in Art Deco architecture

The Chinese temple inspired green tiled part of the station's roof.

Lions on the window details at the station's side are meant to represent Singapore.

Inside the hall, our attention was drawn to the six sets of batik style mosaic mural panels which feature some 9000 tiles that represent the economies of the Federated Malay States (FMS), as well as to the two crests – one being the crest of the Federated Malay States – which comprised of the four British protected states of Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, and the Straits Settlements. Closer inspection of the coat of arms reveals a shield that is coloured with a colour from each of the four state flags in the case of the FMS, and in the case of the Straits Settlements, the shield is made up of four quadrants each representative of the three settlements, Penang, Malacca and Singapore, and also Christmas Island which was annexed to the Straits Settlements in 1889. The station when it was built was designed to maximise the comfort, particularly of first and second class passengers embarking on what was to be a long journey (Rosanne mentioned it took something like 29 hours to reach the Siamese border by train from Tanjong Pagar and the Japanese during the occupation, improved the speed of the passenger trains to 60 km/h and goods trains to 50 km/h, cutting the journey time by some 5 hours), equipped with amenities such as passenger waiting rooms, refreshment rooms, dining rooms, a hairdresser’s shop, dressing rooms and lavatories. Based on news reports of the opening of the station, we are also told that there were other rooms such as a telegraph office, parcel room, offices for the necessary station staff and included a few bedrooms.

Batik painting style mosaic mural panels in the main hall depict the economies of the FMS.

The coat-of-arms of the Federated Malay States - the shield features colours of the four protected states of the FMS.

The coat-of-arms of the Straits Settlements with each quadrant of the shield representing the each of the Straits Settlements which then also included the Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island.

The 45 minute tour ended at the start of the departure platform which now features immigration counters introduced after the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, when travel across the Johor Straits required a passport. When I first started taking the trains in the 1990s, we would have to pass through the Singapore Immigration counters at the near end before going through Malaysian Immigration and Customs further down the platform … this practice was discontinued from mid 1998 when Singapore shifted its immigration to the CIQ Complex in Woodlands, insisting that the Malaysian authorities do the same. This has been resisted right up until today – and up to the 30th of June, one of the things you can still do is to enter Malaysia before leaving Singapore (for a more detailed explanation on this please read my previous post “A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: into Malaysia before leaving Singapore“. The platforms we were also told were some 1,200 feet long, built to cater to the longest of mail trains. We were also shown some of the features around the platform of historical value that would be retained – this included the hydraulic buffer stops at the end which apparently are the only ones found in the stations operated by the Malaysn Railway. The tour ended with a little excitement – first from the animated voiced coming from Malaysian immigration officers who tried to tell us we had strayed a little too far along the platform. It was then time for a quick catch up over some teh-tarik at the cafeteria with my fellow participants and new found friends ….

What used to be immigration counters used by the Singapore authorities ... and apparently reclaimed by Malaysia since mid 1998 ...

A train on the departure platform - the platforms are 1,200 feet in length to accommodate the longest of the mail trains. We were also told that 3rd Class passengers had to use a side access to the platforms.

One of the two hydraulic buffers.

The roof over the platforms also show art deco features in the geometric patterns found on them.


For a comprehensive account of the tour, do drop by PY’s post “The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station Tour on 21 May 2011“. And if any of you are keen to hop onto the last train into Singapore and have a party … do drop by Notabilia’s post “All Aboard? Party on the Last Train Through Singapore” and indicate your interest there. I also have a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station and if you care to read about them, do drop by my page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“. Lastly, if you are keen to find out and support the Nature Society’s (Singapore) proposal to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, do drop by the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page … I do also have a series of posts on the Green Corridor if that is of interest – please visit them at “Support the Green Corridor“.


Rosanne, the volunteer guide with the PMD who led the tour.

A last look at the station ....

Capturing memories and the station's last days of the station seems to be very much fashion these days.





A colourful journey in black and white

14 03 2011

I have always been one for train rides, taking one every opportunity I get whenever I find myself with time to spare, be it from the grand stations of the great European cities, or from stations closer to home, with a particular liking for the old style railways that I sometimes stumble upon. In Singapore, the opportunity had presented itself throughout my life I guess, but somehow, I never embarked on a journey from the grand old station at Tanjong Pagar until I was well into my adulthood, making many trips in the 1990s. Trains always present themselves as a convenient means to get around from one city to another, taking one from the centre of the city right into the heart of another. So it is with the Malayan Railway as well – for another few months at least when Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB or KTM) moves the terminal station from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. With that, we will bid goodbye to the old railway lines which has served Singapore since the turn of the last century, as well as an old railway station in the heart of the city.

The last opportunity to take a train from an old style station in the heart of Singapore, on a line that has served Singapore since 1932 (parts of it date back to the turn of the last century), through Singapore's countryside, before train services terminate at Woodlands by the time the 1st of July arrives.

As mentioned in my previous post, I took another ride recently, just for the sake of reliving my previous journeys before the chance to do so evaporates once KTM moves operations to Woodlands. It will be a shame not to have had that experience, one that involves arriving or departing from the platforms which had served as the southern terminal to the Malayan Railway for eight decades from its days as the FMSR. Once the move is made, Singapore would lose not just another historical link it has had with the Malay States in the Malayan Peninsula, but also a proper train station to take a romantic journey on a train from. What will also go are the well worn tracks that served us so well, laid over a corridor of land that probably due to the railway, has remained untouched and relatively green; as well as the many markers left behind by the railway including the railway bridges, signal posts, railway buildings and control huts, distance markers and the last remaining level crossings in Singapore.

The platforms that have served as the southern terminal point of the Malayan Railway for eight decades.

The choice of the destination for the journey, was one that involved a short trip to one of the main towns in the southern Malaysian State of Johore which borders Singapore, some 90 kilometres north. The town is close enough for a slow paced day trip, and close enough that train tickets to and from are sold as “shuttle” or commuter train tickets available 24 hours prior to the journey. Kluang, along with the destination of my previous outing, Gemas, featured prominently in the final push through Malaya by the Japanese invading forces and was General Yamashita’s headquarters during the dark days at the end of January 1942. It had been a place that I knew about since the early days of my childhood being a town which my grandmother disappeared to leaving me without the stories she would relate to me as a young boy for a weekend.

The platform at Kempas Baru.

Container carriages at Kempas Baru Station.

Passengers boarding the train at Kulai Station.

Train rides, especially through the stations along the Johore length of the railway and walkabouts in Malaysian towns can be very colourful experiences, so much so that they sometimes distract one from the old world charm of the journey and the towns. I thought it would be nice to show another side of the journey and Kluang itself without colour as the images would capture a mood that would otherwise be lost in full colour.

The gentle rocking of the train gives the carriages a sleepy feel ...

A passenger at the end of the carriage.

The conductor.

Arriving at Kluang Station.

Kluang Station.

Kluang itself presents itself as a sleepy town, with the station being perhaps one of the busier places in the town, coming alive as passengers and well wishers gather on the platforms. The station itself hosts an institution in the town, a coffee shop, the Kluang Rail Coffee, that seems to be the star attraction of the town.

Kluang Station is the location of a well known and well patronised coffee shop.

The five foot way of a row of shophouses along Jalan Station.

A closed gate of a shop.

Kluang is a destination for photographers.

The town has an old world feel that maybe could have been that of the Singapore of half a century ago. Beyond its sleepy façade, the town does present some interesting finds. We stumbled upon an old Chinese medicine shop in a row of old shophouses along Jalan Mersing with seedy looking second storey hotels served by well worn wooden staircases, which we later learnt were places one would find ladies of the night. At then end of the row was a coffee shop which had some wonderful tasting treats and quite good coffee, and it was on the recommendation of a passer-by that we made a pit stop there, observing that the tables and floor of the old coffee shop were much cleaner than what we had become accustomed to in Singapore where tables are often cleaned with a swipe of an oily rag.

Not one of the staircases with a seedy destination.

The proprietor of the Chinese Medicine Shop.

Cabinets at the Chinese Medicine Shop.

Tools of the trade (at a Chinese Medicine Shop which has been at its location on Jalan Mersing since the 1950s).

The coffee shop along Jalan Mersing.

The beef noodle seller.

Won Tan Mee man.

Coffee Powder seller.

The slow pace of life extends to the coffee shop.

Leaving the coffee shop, we stepped out into a pretty hot day, which thankfully wasn’t accompanied by much humidity. Still that perhaps made the lazy stroll through town even lazier, and the first chance we got, we stepped into a modern shopping centre and the reward of some bubble tea, right across from a herbal tea vendor on his tricycle. The bubble tea outlet was crawling with customers as was the fast food outlet inside the shopping centre, leaving the streets outside deserted and somewhat forlorn.

A streetside tailor.

Typical street in Kluang.

From the shopping centre, we decided to visit the church that my grandmother visited all those years back – a plaque confirming that Archbishop Olcomendy of Malacca and Singapore (a throw back to the pre-independence archdiocesan boundaries that once existed), had consecrated the church in 1964. The airy little church at the end of Jalan Omar near the station is reminiscent of some of the village churches that once existed in Singapore and is simple in form and architecture.

Church of St. Louis, built in 1964.

Stained glass inside the Church of St. Louis.

Pews inside the church.

It was a short walk to the station next, to sit down at the much touted Railway Coffee shop. It was packed when we arrived just after it opened again at 2 pm, leaving us with a little wait … It was more for the atmosphere that sitting in that old cafe in an old railway station that might have been built in the early 1900s provided than maybe the fare the coffee shop offered. Soon, it was time to take the journey back … another one into Tanjong Pagar, where food stalls that remind us of days gone would soon be seeing their final days. Even if it is not for the train ride it is still worth a visit to the station to visit the makan stalls for chances are when the station finds a second life it might be where only the well heeled would dine. To top a visit to what is still very much a part of Malaysia as is the railway line, why not have something at the station that has become synonymous with street fare across the Causeway … a greasy but very tasty Ramly burger.

Like much of the world we live in ... old is being replaced by the new.

Back at Kluang Station.

Passengers waiting at the platform.

Another scene at the station.

Inside the Kluang Rail Coffee shop.

Having a conversation over a cup of coffee inside the Kluang Rail Coffee shop.

The busiest part of town?

On the 1543 shuttle into Tanjong Pagar ...

A locomotive.

The train ride provides an opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

A last chance to grab a Ramly burger at Tanjong Pagar ...

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To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.






There I go again … another journey through Tanjong Pagar

11 03 2011

I guess I have not had enough of it, despite probably having tens of, if not a couple of hundred journeys out of Tanjong Pagar. I did it once again, since proclaiming that that journey taken with some friends at the end of last year would possibly have been my last. Having had a mixed bag of experiences on the many journeys through the arches of the grand old station, the ones that probably I remember most of are the regular delays that one comes to expect on the far from reliable train service that KTMB operates. Part of the reason for this, some of the archaic infrastructure and practices still in use on the old railway, does perhaps lend itself to an experience that you would certainly not get on the efficient railways that criss-cross much of the European continent – one that seems out of place in the ultra modern and efficient world we have grown accustomed to in Singapore.

I will certainly miss taking train journeys out of Tanjong Pagar ... something that will perhaps motivate me to take a few more over the next few months before the station closes.

Stepping into the station itself would somehow take you back in time, the atmosphere being one which seems more at home in the Singapore of the 1960s and 1970s. The large airy concourse that greets the visitor is adorned with mosaic murals that speak of a style that was prevalent of a time we have left behind and depict scenes from the Malayan peninsula that would have been more common in that era. Over the years that I had have an awareness of the layout of the concourse, nothing much has changed except perhaps that the occupants of some of the spaces, and an invasion of a Tourism Malaysia hut in the middle of it. It is in one of the spaces along the concourse that some nice food can be found and to perhaps add a old world flavour to the station, you would find food vendors that would be more comfortable conversing in Bahasa Melayu, once a common language on the streets.

The sight of the trains at the platforms of Tanjong Pagar will soon be nothing but a fading memory.

Beyond the concourse, the platforms do also take one back in time. With a cafe where one can sit back and enjoy the comings and goings on the tracks as well as on the platforms, over a cup of tea that perhaps one would bear only for the pleasure of what the setting offers. These days with the knowledge that the station would soon hear its last train whistle, one would encounter an army of photographers that sometimes seem to outnumber passengers making their way from the platform. Across on the departure platform, for long missing the Singapore checkpoint staff that had occupied the rooms at the end for some three decades before moving to Woodlands during a time when relations between Singapore and the northern neighbours wasn’t at its best. Somehow, the frenzy that accompanies the checkpoint on the Causeway is also missing from the Malaysian Customs and Immigration counters on the platform.

Last light ... the light is fading on the train station as it will hear its last train whistle by the time the first of July comes around.

Beyond the platforms, the highlight for any train passenger awaits, one that takes one through parts of Singapore that have remained untarnished by the waves of development that has altered the face of much of the island, and it is for this that a train journey through Tanjong Pagar is certainly worth the while. The initial part of the journey through to the Bukit Timah area past the two truss bridges cuts through some parts that might well have remained untouched since the Railway Deviation of 1932 took the railway line through the Ulu Pandan area to Tanjong Pagar. There are huge tracts of greenery, particularly in the Buona Vista / Portsdown and Ulu Pandan areas, much of which are certainly worth keeping – something that the Nature Society of Singapore advocates in their proposal to turn the rail corridor into green corridors. Unfortunately, it does seem like the vultures have started to hover over some of these places based on the Foreign Minister’s mention of plans during the budget debate on 3 Mar 2011. Beyond the station at Bukit Timah, there would also be parts where the original Singapore to Kranji line would have run up to 1932. And it is along these stretch that we see some of the parts of the railway that fascinated me from my early days, including the bridges and the level crossings that we might soon see the last of, as come the first of July, the railway line that we have seen cut through Singapore for a century or so, would see its last train.

Foreign Minister George Yeo on the schedule for the shift of the terminal station from Tanjong Pagar by 1 Jul 2011. Nothing new in the announcement except that some of the development plans for the railway land were mentioned.

The departure platform again. Not having had enough of journeys through Tanjong Pagar, I found myself on the platform taking another journey.

So, there I found myself on a Sunday morning with a few companions, boarding another train, to embark on what is perhaps not a final but one of my last journeys out of the station, taking it all in again. The view from the train pulling out from the sunrise shrouded station was dreamy to say the least, as were the views of the train yard, somehow feeling as if it was a movie of a forgotten time that I was watching. I took it all in … signal poles, distance markers, the green tracts, the Tanglin Halt area which I had been familiar with having spent my earliest days in nearby Commonwealth Crescent, that old station at Bukit Timah, the truss bridges and the level crossings. The train ride went a little too smoothly for it to be one that I was used to, leaving right on time and speeding past the station at Bukit Timah and skipping the ritual of the exchange of the key token. We were to find out why once we got across the Causeway … that I would leave to another post, as I will our destination for the day … this journey certainly won’t be my last and if I do have the time … it would be one of a series of journeys that would be to remember that we once had an old world railway line running through a Singapore that had long left that old world behind.

Pulling out of Tanjong Pagar.

Light Signals ...

Signal pole.

A fading memory ... the view out of the window of a train passing through Kranji area.


To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.






New Year’s Eve with a Concubine: a stroll around the streets of Old Ipoh

3 01 2011

One of the wonderful things about wandering around old towns in Malaysia is their ability to delight you with a few surprises from time to time. One such town (or city as it is now) is Ipoh, which I have passed through many times over the years without paying much attention to, which I had decided to spend a night at recently, motivated primarily by the desire to pay a visit to the grand old Railway Station building given to the city by one of the architects that Kuala Lumpur owes its rich architectural heritage to, with the bonus of the promise of the sumptuous treats that awaits the visitor to the city.

Motivated by the desire to have a look at the magnificent piece of railway architecture designed by A. B. Hubback, I decided to spend a bit more time in Ipoh than I normally would have thought of spending.

Ipoh had always been a town that I had not paid much attention to, often serving as a mere stopover on journeys to the north and the west of the town. It is a town that I have always associated with the tin mines that brought the town much of its status and wealth in the days gone by, one characterised by the many grand old buildings in the old town and the large bungalows along the approach into town that greet the visitor. My first ever visits there had been on an ambitious road trip my father took the family on in the early 1970s, when we had stopped first to pay a visit to the parents of his Brother-in-law who lived in Canning Garden on the way from Cameron Highlands to Penang, which I remember very little of except for sweltering in the mid day heat. We did also stop on the return trip – an unscheduled stop forced upon us by the temperature that I was running, to consult with a doctor and get some rest to recover before setting off for Kuala Lumpur.

Ipoh is named after the Ipoh, Epu or Upas Tree which was apparently abundant in and around Ipoh. This Ipoh Tree stands in the Town Square just in front of the Railway Station.

There were two other visits that I had made during my youth, both en route to Pulau Pangkor. One was notable more for the return coach journey on the Mara Express on which left passengers in a state that wasn’t far from a homonym of Mara in Malay. The other was when we had actually spent a few days – once again at Canning Garden where we stayed with the parents of a colleague of my mothers. That trip I remember most for being bored, mah-jong being the source of adult entertainment, thus leaving my sister and myself, the only juveniles stuck within the confines of the four walls and looking forward to the forays made into town for meals for which I remember the crunchy bean sprouts most and perhaps the sight of the old Cold Storage Supermarket which somehow caught my attention. It wasn’t some 25 years after that, at the beginning of 2008 when I had a short stint in Penang, that I visited Ipoh again, once again for a short stopover driven by curiosity of a place I had only vague memories of. On that and a subsequent stopover I made at the end of 2009, there wasn’t really much to change my impression of the town, which is in fact the administrative and commercial capital of the state of Perak, based on its reputation as being not much more than a sleepy hollow.

Ipoh, set against the backdrop of limestone hills has a reputation of being a sleepy hollow.

This time around, equipped with a little more time than I had given myself on my other recent visits, I was able to see a part of Ipoh that had previously escaped me. I was indeed surprised by its architectural heritage around a part of Ipoh that I had not previously known – seeing only in photographs the magnificent Railway Station and the beautiful building that is home to the sister institution to my own alma mater, St. Michael’s Institution.

Ipoh has some architectural masterpieces including St. Michael's Institution which was built over a period of 30 years from 1922, which is a sister institution to my alma mater in Singapore, St. Joseph's Institution.

After a early morning exploration of the beautiful Railway Station of which I would devote another post to, I was able to take a stroll around another of Arthur Benison Hubback’s masterpieces – the Town Hall, which has sadly fallen into a state of disrepair – although signs of restoration work around the rear of the building which was once the Post Office were evident. The Town Hall was built by the Public Works Department (as were the Government Buildings of that time) as part of an effort to provide Ipoh with public buildings that were “worthy of the town” in the early part of the 20th Century, the same effort which provided the Railway Station and the Town Square that separates the two magnificent edifices which were meant to provide, as the town planners had put, “a fine entry into the town“. Construction on the Town Hall and Post Office commenced in 1914 and after a delay due to the late arrival of materials from England, the building was completed in 1916. The Post Office moved in early 1917.

Ipoh Town Hall, which also housed the Post Office at the back of the building, was another building designed by A. B. Hubback.

A view of one of the wings of the Neo Classical styled Town Hall.

Inside the Town Hall.

Some of the other notable buildings in the vicinity that I was able to see on my stroll around the area just behind the Town Hall, bounded by Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road), Jalan Dewan (Post Office Road), Jalan Sultan Yussuf (Belfield Road), and the Padang are the High Court, built in Neo-Classical style and completed in 1928; the Straits Trading Building (now occupied by OCBC) built in 1907 in the Italian Renaissance style; the Chartered Bank Building built in 1924; the Art Deco styled Mercantile Bank (1931); the Perak Hydro Building (1930s) which housed the Perak River Hydro-Electric Power Company which supplied power to the tin mines around Ipoh; the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931), built in the Neo Renaissance style and was for a long time the tallest building in Ipoh until the post-independence era; and the building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant from 1923 – reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Malaysia which was started by a Hainanese immigrant and catered exclusively to European Miners and Plantation Owners. Along Jalan Tun Sambanthan (Hale Street) by the Padang, there is also a row of terrace town houses worth a look at which once was occupied by the practices and residences of legal professionals.

The High Court building is another notable building in Ipoh, just across from the Town Hall.

Another view of the High Court.

The Straits Trading Building (1907).

The Chartered Bank Building (1924).

The Mercantile Bank Building (1931).

The Perak Hydro Building (1930s).

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931) which for a long time was the highest building in Ipoh.

The building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant, reputedly the oldest restaurant in Malaysia.

Across Jalan Tun Sambanthan from the Padang, are a row of pre-war town houses which housed the offices and residences of legal professionals.

So what does all this have to do with the concubine in the title of this post you may ask? Well, the stroll did certainly help in working up an appetite and in deciding to head to nearby Leech Street or what is now Jalan Bandar Timah where I was given to understand had some of the best “Sar Hor Fun” – flat rice noodles (commonly referred to as Kway Teow in our part of the world) of which Ipoh has reputedly the best (in terms of it being silky smooth), served with shredded steamed chicken and prawns in a clear chicken broth, in town, I stumbled upon another of the delightful surprises Ipoh held in store for me: Panglima Lane. Panglima Lane or Lorong Panglima is a narrow alleyway lined with two rows of two-storey pre-war houses that date back to the turn of the 20th Century. The lane had apparently been a hotbed of vice activity, home to gambling, prostitution and opium dens, which later became a residential area from which it got its name “Second Concubine Lane” being one of three streets where the Chinese wealthy had housed their concubines. Today, what greets the visitor are the crumbling and closely spaced units, some still occupied, and others, structurally unsound, lying abandoned. Signs of life are still very much in evidence around the occupied units – a well known restaurant occupies one of the units close to the main road beyond which the sight of laundry poles overhead, potted plants, opened doors and bicycles and tricycles greet the eye, along with evidence of the units that are slowly but surely falling apart. There are apparently plans to conserve and redevelop the houses along the lane, which I guess is something to look forward to, and something that has to be done before it all crumbles away.

A delightful find off Jalan Bandar Timah (Leech Street) is Lorong Panglima, a narrow street which is also known as "Concubine Lane".

Two rows of houses dating from the turn of the 20th Century line both sides of Concubine Lane, some showing signs of age and neglect. The lane was once a hotbed of vice activity and later became a residential area where rich Chinese men kept mistresses or concubines.

Another view of Concubine Lane. Some units still serve as residences, while some have been abandoned and left to crumble.

A tricycle outside a house in Concubine Lane.

More signs of life.

Windows on Concubine Lane.

A peek into one of the abandoned units on Concubine Lane.

As an added treat, I had my bowl of “Sar Hor Fun” in a coffee shop on the ground floor of a building on Leech Street that was built in the 1920s, as a hostel for performers at a Chinese Opera theatre that was just next door to it (since demolished). It was really a toss-up between the “Sar Hor Fun” stall next door at No. 73 which seemed more popular, and the one at No. 75 (Kong Heng Coffee Shop) where the so-called Dramatists’ Hostel was housed. I went for the one at No. 75 perhaps for the history of the building and wasn’t disappointed. The bowl of silky smooth noodles in the tasty chicken broth (which didn’t at all feel like it had been flavoured with MSG) was one of the best I have tasted. What struck me sitting in the coffee shop was that besides the bowl of noodles, people were also eating satay – which came from a well-known stall at neighbouring No. 73 – satay where I come from is usually only eaten only in the evenings. With the bowl of noodles finished, there was only one thing left to do … that was to sip on the steaming hot cup of Ipoh White Coffee, before heading back to the hotel for a rest.

The former "Dramatists' Hostel" along Leech Street once was home to performers of the Chinese Opera Theatre that stood next door (since demolished).

The ground floor of the former "Dramatists' Hostel" now houses the Kedai Kopi Kong Heng, at which I had a piping hot bowl of the well known Ipoh Sar Hor Fun.

A view from the window of the coffee shop.

The very satisfying bowl of "Sar Hor Fun" that I had.

The Sar Hor Fun stall at Kong Heng.





A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: destination Gemas

8 12 2010

On what could be a final train journey out of Tanjong Pagar before the big move of the terminal station to Woodlands by 1 July 2011 for my friends and me, we decided on the sleepy town of Gemas as a destination possibly for two reasons. The first was that it was probably apt that feeling nostalgic for the railway line which has run through Singapore for more than a century, the bulk of what we see today being a result of a Railway Deviation that gave us that quaint old station at Bukit Timah and the grand old station at Tanjong Pagar, we explore what is the main railway junction on the Malayan Peninsula at Gemas from where the northbound lines branch off to the east and west. Gemas has in fact always been a town that has long been associated with the railway, with its station for a long time boasting an old steam locomotive, the 56 class MR No. 564.36 “Temerloh” which we had thought was still there. The second was of course that it was probably the furthest point on the railway that a day trip afforded, being approximately four hours from Singapore, allowing us to catch the 0800 Ekspress Rakyat out, arriving around noon, and the evening 1705 Ekspress Rakyat back into Singapore, leaving us with five hours or so to explore the sleepy town and maybe visit the World War II heritage site where Australian Forces had ambushed invading Japanese forces at a bridge over the Gemencheh River.

Gemas is the main railway junction in the Malayan Peninsula where the north bound lines split into an eastern line and a western line and probably the furthest point which could fit into a daytrip.

Gemas is a sleepy town built around the Railway Junction which is made up mainly of pre-war shophouses.

Arriving at the station, a little worn and a lot hungry from the journey which took one and a half hours longer than what was scheduled I guess the first thing was to head for a bite. We did just that, stopping at a coffee shop where we had not so quick and not so tasty a bite. From that it was on to the site of the Gemencheh Bridge – what is known as the Sungai Kelamah Memorial some 11 kilometres fron the station before heading back into town where we had a little over and hour to walk around.

Arriving at Gemas Station ...

A kilometre marker (what we might once have called a milestone), indicating the centre of Gemas town close to the Railway Station.

Where we had lunch ...

Old style bamboo blinds.

Naturally, our first stop after getting back into town was the train station, where we were disappointed to discover that the Termeloh had found a new home – having moved to the Railway Museum in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year as part of the 125 anniversary of KTMB. Still it was worth paying the station a visit – with another old locomotive and some railway relics from the past adding a feel of the old world station that Gemas once was. It was nice to observe the comings and goings as well … realising that passengers would rather cross over the tracks than use the overhead bridge that provided safe access to the platforms across from the main station building. A funny moment occurred when one of us had decided to venture up into the cabin of a working locomotive – where in trying to take a few photographs, he somehow blasted the horn, sending the station master scrambling out (probably awakening him from his mid-afternoon slumber) of the station control room.

The station was the first stop after getting back ...

The working locomotive on which one of my friends had inadvertently blasted the horn waking the station master from his mid-afternoon slumber.

Views around the station.

The town itself isn’t too interesting – most of the main part of town which can be covered by a ten minute walk, comprising of pre-war shop houses and that being a Sunday, most of the shops were shuttered. Still it was worth a walk around, the attraction I guess being two old Peranakan houses which I had somehow missed which some of my friends found. Being a hot day, we decided on the next best thing with there being not much to keep us occupied – sitting in the only air-conditioned premises in town – the town’s only fast food restaurant KFC – which was just a stone’s throw away from the station.

More views around Gemas Station.

A pre-war shophouse near the station.

More of the sleepy town that Gemas is ...

A resident of Gemas ...

Back at the station, it was time to stock up on a few conical shaped packets of the famous Gemas Railway Station Nasi Lemak, but not before being distracted by a couple deck out in their finery, having wedding photographs taken. Waiting on the platform, with packets of Nasi Lemak – one Ringgit each and in each warm paper packet that was warm to touch, inside it an old style simple serving of sambal ikan bilis, a quarter of a boiled egg and a slice of cucumber – just nice for a snack rather than a meal, there was much besides the wedding couple to observe. As anticipated the train was late getting in – arriving half and hour later than scheduled. Once onboard we could settle down at last – first was to taste the much talked about coconut laden rice waiting in the brown paper packets … the only thing can probably describe it is “Shiok!” – maybe that was brought about by the monotony and tiredness of the end of a journey that came with the end of the day. Dozing off regularly to the gentle cajoling of the train in the gentle swaying motion that comes as it rode over the tracks, we soon found ourselves back across the causeway and soon in Singapore, where the familiar sights of cars stopping at Choa Chu Kang Road for the train and then the glow of the steeple of St. Joseph’s Church along Bukit Timah Road told us we were home. Once at Tanjong Pagar station (an hour late) – where in my previous journeys it would have meant a rush to get through immigration, we could now stroll towards the station hall with us clearing immigration at the CIQ complex in Woodlands. Before we made our way home – it was a customary stop for food – we had satay. The station had always for me been a place that was synonymous with food … from my early days when the lights of the many hawkers in the carpark illuminated the grey building to the days when we could sit by the station building along Spottiswoode Park Road and dine al-fresco over satay … Then, with a quick final goodbye … it was back home … with fond memories of the many train journeys from the grand old station to carry with us.

A couple having wedding photographs taken at the station ...

Running for his bride ...

Around Gemas Station while waiting for the train to arrive ...

Passengers crossing the tracks ...

Gemas Station is as sleepy as the town ...

The wedding couple making their way down the platform ...

Boarding the train back ....

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