A memory of the JTC flats at Kampong Java Teban

21 07 2021

Initially set aside for the resettlement of villagers displaced by the industrialisation of Singapore’s south-western coastline and its islands, Kampong Java Teban became the site of a Jurong Town Corporation or JTC developed housing estate that took on the name “Teban Gardens” in the course of this redevelopment. It was one of several major residential developments that the JTC undertook following its spin-off from the Economic Development Board or EDB in 1968 together with DBS Bank and Intraco. The JTC was given the task of real estate management and development, not just for industrial property, but also for housing in industrial estates; a task which had hitherto fallen to the Housing and Development Board (HDB), who constructed housing on behalf of EDB. This was before the management of JTC estates and their flats came under HDB’s purview on 1 May 1982, following the passing of the 1982 amendments to the Housing and Development Act.

Development work on Teban Gardens, Jurong Town’s third residential neighbourhood, commenced in 1973. By the third quarter of 1976, the estate’s first 625 three-room flats were put on sale through a ballot, with the bulk of the estate’s first 3776 units coming up for balloting through much of 1977. While the development was initially aimed at the industrial estate’s workforce, the anticipated demand fell short of expectations due to a slowdown in industrial expansion with the weak economic climate in the mid-1970s. This led to the sale of the flats in Teban Gardens being extended to the general public from June 1977.

The bulk of the flats in Teban Gardens being put on sale during this period were three-room flats. Comparable in size to HDB built three-room flats, the estate featured three-room flats that were quite unique in that they did not open to a common corridor unlike their HDB counterparts. The 10-storey slab-blocks with these flats had common corridors on the third, sixth and ninth levels, along which four-room flats were arranged. With a floor area of 766 sq. ft, the three room units were sold for $15,000, while the 866 sq. ft. four-room common corridor units went for $21,500. Along with the three and four-room units, there were also a number of slab blocks and point blocks with five-room units, measuring between 1147 and 1400 sq. ft. in floor area, which were sold between $30,000 and $35,000.

Among the flats from this first wave of Teban Gardens’ development, were a set of blocks that I last caught a glimpse of in the mid-2010s when they were already emptied of life, having come under HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in 2007. The flats, which numbered 2 to 11 and of which I had a passing familiarity with from my working days in Jurong and in the Pandan area from 1991 to 2008 and from my adventures along the former Jurong Railway line, are no more. All that I have to remember them by are these few photographs, which I captured in 2013.

The dragons live on

4 08 2013

It is indeed wonderful news that the last of the two dragon kilns in Singapore will see an extension to their tenure which should add at least nine more years to their lives. The future of the kilns, the Thow Kwang kiln and the Guan Huat kiln, beyond when their current leases run out (at end of 2014 and in early 2015 respectively), had very much been in doubt – the area is currently being developed into a CleanTech Park by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) (see also a previous post: A dragon draws breath).

A look into the belly of the dragon - the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

A look into the belly of the dragon – the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

What is perhaps more significant about the news is that the National Heritage Board (NHB) is behind the extension of the tenure, which will be for an initial term of three years and renewable for two further terms of three years each, giving due recognition to the heritage value of the kilns.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

That the kilns are of heritage value, there certainly isn’t any doubt. They were once a feature of the area, as well as several other rural areas in Singapore, providing not only clay latex cups essential to the rubber plantations found across much of the rural landscape, but also employment opportunities which together with the estates, drew communities to the areas close to where they were set up.

The Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is built around the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln which the Tan family has operated since 1965.

The kilns were established to satisfy demand for clay latex cups. Once demand fell as rubber plantations were cleared out for industrialisation, the kilns turned to making flower and orchid pots.

As many as nine such kilns were thought to have been established in the area, off a stretch of Jurong Road from the 13th to the 17th milestones. What did draw so many to the area was as much the demand for latex cups as it was the white Jurong clay which made a perfect raw material. The area where the two remaining kilns are found, do in fact have a pottery making history that goes beyond what essentially are kilns brought to Singapore by the Teochew community.  During a refurbishment of the Thow Kwang kiln a few years back, evidence was uncovered of what is thought was a Hokkien 3-chamber kiln next to the current kiln (see also: Into the belly of the dragon).

Stoke holes found of the earlier kiln on the site of the dragon kiln.

Stoke holes found of an earlier Hokkien kiln on the site of the Thow Kwang kiln.

Both the existence of kilns in the area and the evidence of the previous kiln does provide an important link to the rich heritage of the Jurong area, as well as to the area’s early development history, much of which has already been lost to the industrialisation of the area. For the owners of Thow Kwang kiln, Mr Tan Teck Yoke and his wife Mrs Yulianti Tan, the motivation is as much their interest in maintaining this link, as it is a desire to maintain a tradition passed down from Mr Tan’s father who bought the kiln in 1965.

Evidence of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

Evidence of the stepped chamber of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

The kiln is no longer commercially viable as it was when the elder Mr Tan purchased it – demand for latex cups vanished when the area’s rubber plantations did, and the Tan’s maintain it out of pure passion and it was with much happiness and relief with which they received the news which came at a press conferenced called by NHB at the kiln yesterday morning.

Fishing by a potter's hut.

A potter’s hut at Thow Kwang which was already demolished as it was on part of the land that was taken back by the Jurong Town Corporation.

At the press conference, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend as I was due to speak at a Queenstown Symposium, Mr Alvin Tan, Group Director (Policy) of the NHB, spoke of both the heritage and artistic value – the two remianing kilns being “a unique part of Singapore’s pottery history” as well as that the traditional wood-firing kilns are now used by clay artists to achieve a unique glaze on their work.

The natural beauty of wood fire kiln fired  pottery - the windward side is glazed by the ash and salt while the other side is left unglazed.

The natural beauty of wood fire kiln fired pottery – the windward side is glazed by the ash and salt while the other side is left unglazed.

The kilns are indeed a unique part of our history and it is my hope that they will remain a part of a Singapore in which we have already lost too much of.

Further information on Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln

A last cup of kopi-o at Blk 398 Canteen

1 05 2013

It is always nice to drop in on a place that is reminiscent of a world we can no longer see such as the Blk 398 Canteen. Operating on the grounds of the former Seletar Camp since 1969, it was for long insulated against the winds of change which seem to sweep across much of the island of Singapore  over the four decades that have passed. Said to be one of the last “kampong kopitiam” (village coffee shop) in Singapore, it maybe is less of the kampong kopitiam many of us might wish that it is, seemingly more like a world caught in transition, but one certainly in which time does seem to have long stood still.

Having a cup of kopi-o at the Blk 398 Canteen takes one back in time.

Having a cup of kopi-o at the Blk 398 Canteen takes one back in time.

The canteen sign painted on a corrugated zinc sheet exterior wall.

The canteen sign painted on a corrugated zinc sheet exterior wall.

The canteen takes its name from its address at 398 Piccadilly. The address is itself a throwback to to days now long forgotten when the area was part of the Royal Air Force’s RAF Seletar. Completed in 1928, the former air station and its grounds was for a long while after the 1971 British pullout, well preserved – an area rich in charm, the eastern side of the former air station was used to house several Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) military units, while some 378 colonial houses on its western side were turned over for civilian use. It was in the transition that the canteen commenced operations serving first the RAF personnel before their pullout and the SAF personnel after that.

The outside of Blk 398 Canteen

The outside of Blk 398 Canteen.

A customer entering the canteen.

A customer entering the canteen.

The inside of Blk 398 Canteen.

The inside of Blk 398 Canteen.

The area the canteen is in is now undergoing yet another transition, one which will see the biggest transformation of the area since work commenced on RAF Seletar in the 1920s. The transformation will see the Jurong Town Corporation’s (JTC) Seletar Aerospace Park built over much of the area which the former RAF Seletar occupied and will see some 174 of the “black and white” houses – former homes of RAF personnel which provided the area with much of its charm, demolished. This transition is also one which will also see the 44 year old canteen go (it was supposed to have been closed last December) and with it one of the last chances to have that cup of kopi-o in Singapore today, as it might have been yesterday.

Houses left behind by the RAF provided the area with much of its previous charm.

Houses left behind by the RAF provided the area with much of its previous charm.

Another view of the inside.

Another view of the inside.

Concertina wire - a reminder of the former military site on the fence of the canteen.

Concertina wire – a reminder of the former military site on the fence of the canteen.

A dragon draws breath

3 12 2012

This Chinese year of the dragon is one which has seen a dragon awakened from its slumber. The dragon, the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln, is one of two surviving wood-fired Teochew kilns in Singapore, referred to as dragon kilns as its long semi-circular cross-sectioned chamber resembles the body of the mythical beast, more commonly referred to as ‘snake kilns’ where they originated from in Chaozhou in Guangdong Province in China. One of nine similar kilns found off a stretch of Jurong Road from the 13th to the 17th milestones attracted to the area by the demand for clay latex cups from the area’s rubber plantations, the kiln today is no longer operating commercially – demand for the wares was lost with the disappearance of the rubber plantations, and is kept running by the owner Mr Tan Teck Yoke and his wife Mrs Yulianti Tan purely for their desire to maintain the tradition.

A look into the belly of the dragon - the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

A look into the belly of the dragon – the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

Thow Kwang dragon kiln during the MMarch 2012 firing.

Thow Kwang dragon kiln during the March 2012 firing.

At the height of the demand for latex cups, the dragon would have found it had to keep its breath. Fired four times a month, work in and around the kiln would have gone on continuously – the actual firing done over a 24 hour period, after which the kilns would be left for up to a week to cool, unpacked and repacked for the next cycle. As demand fell in the 1980s, the surviving kilns turned to the production of flower pots but unfortunately demand for that also fell off and by the 1990s, most of the dragons seemed to have drawn a last breath with most disappearing with the wave of urbanisation that had swept across the area at the end of the 1980s and during the early 1990s.

Feeding the fire - firing is now done twice a year on the average where in its heyday, the kiln would have been fired up to four times a month and work in and around it went on very much around the clock.

Feeding the fire – firing is now done twice a year on the average where in its heyday, the kiln would have been fired up to four times a month and work in and around it went on very much around the clock.

One of two kilns still left at the end of the 1990s – the other being the former Guan Huat kiln next door, it wasn’t until the mid 2000s approached that interest in the kiln was revived – firings to support a local community of clay potters restarted in 2003. In the case of the former Guan Huat kiln, it became part of the Singapore Tourism Board funded Jalan Bahar Clay Studios at which firings recommenced in 2004. Firings now take place on the average of twice a year, when sufficient quantities of clay pieces do accumulate and are now occasions for the artists’ communities to celebrate as well as providing the artists and the kiln operators with an opportunity to further their understanding and to document the process and results (not much has previously been documented on the kiln firing process).

The kiln now supports a community of clay potters. Clay pieces are seen stacked on a kiln shelf prior to firing. Pyrometric cones used to determine temperature from previous firings are shown - the temperature at which the cones are rated at is reached when the cone bends fully.

The kiln now supports a community of clay potters. Clay pieces are seen stacked on a kiln shelf prior to firing. Pyrometric cones used to determine temperature from previous firings are shown – the temperature at which the cones are rated at is reached when the cone bends fully.

I was presented with an opportunity to observe the preparations and as the firing at Thow Kwang in March 2012 (the kiln has subsequent to the March firing, been fired twice, the latest being on 30 November). The kiln, built in the 1940s, was bought over by Mr Tan’s father in 1965. The kiln has seventeen stoke holes, used to feed the fire through each intermediate area of the chamber. In the past, all seventeen would have been used. During the firing in March only six were used during the March firing.

The firing session provides an opportunity to observe the preparations in the lead up to the firing as well as the firing itself. Firing commences after prayers to the kiln god are offered. Offerings are placed on an altar on top of the firing box.

The firing session provides an opportunity to observe the preparations in the lead up to the firing as well as the firing itself. Firing commences after prayers to the kiln god are offered. Offerings are placed on an altar on top of the firing box.

Preparations start with the rush by the potters to complete their clay pieces. It is in the week before the firing that a frenzy starts at the kiln site with work to set up and pack the kiln shelves in the chamber of the kiln. The shelves need to be carefully arranged in the chamber. Placed in the areas between the stoke holes, wadding or balls of clay used to support clay pieces on the shelves, are dropped from the stoke holes to help in determining if the correct placement. Clay pieces are then stacked on the shelves, with each piece is supported on cockle shells or wadding to prevent them from fusing to the shelves. Once stacking is completed, the access openings to the chamber are sealed with bricks and clay.

A kiln shelf stacked prior to firing.

A kiln shelf stacked prior to firing.

Each firing session starts with prayers to the kiln god during which offerings are placed on an altar above the firing box. Wood is fed over a better part of the day into the firing box, located at the bottom end of the kiln, to bring the temperature up to the desired temperature of 1260 degrees Celcius. Where the temperature had traditionally been determined through observation of the colour of the flames in the chamber, temperature sensors and pyrometric cones now help in doing this.

A pyrometric cone seen through a stoke hole bends in the heat.

A pyrometric cone seen through a stoke hole bends in the heat.

The feeding of wood into the fire is very much a manual task – the artists to take turns at it. The effort is one that the artists feel is rewarded by the finishing that only a wood firing is able to give to a clay piece. The resulting uneven (and unpredictable) glaze, achieved by a mix of salt (thrown into the stoke holes) and wood ash only on the windward side of the pieces, does give the wood-fired clay pieces each a unique appearance.

Feeding the fire through a stoke hole.

Feeding the fire through a stoke hole.

When the temperature at the firing box does reach the 1260 degrees, its openings are closed. The feeding of wood is then transferred to the first stoke hole and moved to the next to bring the fire up the chamber – the process repeated until the required section of the chamber has been fired. The length of the firing session does depend very much on the effects that are desired, now that it is carried out for artistic pieces. The session in March went on for some 36 hours before the kiln was left to cool for about a week. The unpredictable nature of wood firing does carry risks of damage to the artwork and during the March firing, the first shelf collapsed with several large clay pots falling and breaking.

Flames seen passing through an opening hole (for inserting a temperature sensor) on a covered stoke hole.

Flames seen passing through an opening hole (for inserting a temperature sensor) on a covered stoke hole.

Pieces from a collapsed shelf seen through the firing box.

Pieces from a collapsed shelf seen through the firing box.

While the motivation to keep the kiln going is one of a desire to preserve history and tradition, it is a tradition that is under threat. The future for the kiln looks rather bleak – its current lease expires in 2014 and with developments in the area – a CleanTech Park built by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) in the area is fast taking shape, it may be that this old dragon of Jalan Bahar, may well have drawn the last of its breaths.

An unevenly glazed clay piece from the March firing.

An unevenly glazed clay piece from the March firing.

A piece that was supported by a cockle shell bearing the mark of the support.

A piece that was supported by a cockle shell bearing the mark of the support.

An escape from Singapore in Singapore

23 08 2011

Despite the beginnings of the encroachment of the urban world that the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle has for long been spared from, the previously tranquil spot set in the woods that are fast disappearing still offers a quiet escape far from the madding crowds that descend on much of the public areas in Singapore over the weekend (and the weekdays for that matter). The so-called pottery jungle is set around the oldest surviving dragon kiln in Singapore, the Thow Kwang kiln, built in 1940, and has become a haven for potters seeking to do their creative work in an environment that they can draw upon for inspiration.

Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is set in what was for a long time a tranquil spot in Jurong.

Besides the sale of imported pottery pieces, the potters’ activities have  become a main focus of the kiln which was last used commercially in the late 1990s. For the potters, working at the kiln offers not just an escape from the confines of walled air-conditioned studios, but also a chance to fire their works in a one of two surviving wood fired kilns in Singapore, a process that adds an element of randomness in the way pottery pieces are finished – a natural glaze is obtained on the otherwise unglazed pieces from ash and salt (which is thrown into the kiln) that is deposited on the windward side of the pottery pieces. Since a pottery workshop started on the premises in 2001, the size of the pottery community working at the pottery jungle has steadily grown and at least ten potters spend most of their weekends there.

One is never far from nature at Thow Kwang.

The chamber of the dragon kiln. Wood fired kilns add an element of randomness in the manner pottery pieces fired in them are finished.

For others, Thow Kwang offers more than an escape. What is left of the woods and greenery around it is rich in birds and other creatures that we have gotten used to not seeing in the urban world most of us live and work in. Sitting by the pond besides the dance of the butterflies and dragonflies that often greets the eye, one can see and hear kingfishers as well as woodpeckers in the trees around and a sudden burst of blue darting against the backdrop of green isn’t hard to spot. It is for this that I find myself drawn to the pottery jungle, spending more time than I normally would in the company of some in the community of potters that have become friends. It is a world that is there to enjoy, and one that offers the visitor a world that is hard to find in the world we have found ourselves in.

Common flameback woodpeckers colour the rural landscape that is fast vanishing.

Koi in a pond. The pond and the land around the pond is being returned to the SLA.

The pottery jungle has imported pieces for sale.

Another piece on display.

A thickness scale on a clay slab roller.

A water lily in bloom at Thow Kwang.

Another bit of paradise soon to be lost

26 07 2011

Having been caught up in the frenzy of what has been a frenetic two months, I am grateful for the doses of peace and calm that does come my way every now and again. I did finally manage to have a large dose of that on Sunday when I got up bright and early, meaning to catch the first rays of the sun streaming through woods that will in the very near future disappear as much of the Singapore we have once known has. While the low clouds in the east had conspired to deprive me of what must surely be a gorgeous view of the rays of the sun streaming through the trees, I was able to better become acquainted with the area around which I had only a month or so earlier visited, spending the entire morning at one of two of the last dragon kilns in Singapore, the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

Water Lilies in a pond at Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

The Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is built around the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln which the Tan family has operated since 1965.

It was mostly around a pond, that I spent most of my morning, first indulging in a leisurely breakfast and being entertained by the excited songs of the early morning that the winged creatures that were perched on the branches of the trees that surrounded the pond were adding to the otherwise calm surroundings. It seemed for a while that I was in a little bit paradise, one that is certainly hard to find in the cold grey world that dominates our daily lives in Singapore. The pond is a magnet for creatures of all kinds, butterflies and dragonflies could be seen, colouring the otherwise single coloured surface of a body of water that was carved out of the remnants of the gaps in the earth left behind from the harvest of white Jurong clay that attracted as many as nine similiar kilns to the area. Fishermen of both the winged variety, resplendent in the bright colours of the feathered suits they adorn, and of the human kind, are also regular visitors to the pond, in search of a meal harvested from its depths.

The land on which the pond is will be returned to the JTC.

An incense burner by the pond.

A close-up of the potter's hut.

Fishing by a potter's hut.

Even with my brief encounter with the so-called Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle which surrounds the kiln, I find it sad thinking about the encroachment of the grey world on the area that was happening right at that moment I was there – the earth just beyond the gates of the pottery jungle had already scarred by the bulldozers that were seen up the road. Much of the land that surrounds the pottery jungle is being stripped bare of the trees that not only provide shade to the pottery jungle, but also insulate the area from the urban world that lies just beyond the soon to be lost woods. The area is being cleared by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) to make way for the development of a CleanTech Park. It is not only the woods that would be lost (at least to the pottery jungle), but also the pond at which I spent the morning – the pickets of intended green fences that many detest are already up to remind us that the land on which the pond sits, is being returned to the JTC (the land on which the kiln and the potery jungle is on is leased on an annual basis).

Bulldozers have moved into the area and are clearing the woods that surround the area for a CleanTech Park development.

While the sleeping dragon will continue to sleep, rising occasionally, it is its companions which it will find that are no longer there who will probably feel the loss of the woods in the area most. And as the woods of grey replace the woods of green in the area, those of us who have sought to deprive the dragon’s of its companions may have also deprived ourselves and our future generations of the joy that could be found in that little bit of paradise that once existed in the woods.

A pathway not into the woods anymore, but to what will be the CleanTech Park.

A dragonfly frolicking over the pond.

A Common Flameback Woodpecker seen on the trunk of a tree near the pond.

A skink scampers across a footpath ...

A centipede.

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.


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.