The last rubber tree

17 04 2014

It is in a part of Singapore struggling to hold on to times the modern world has discarded that we find a remnant of forgotten days – a tree, said to be the last of the rubber trees, which is one of what were many more on the huge Bukit Sembawang plantation that had once dominated the area.

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There is much mystery that surrounds the tree, which towers over a mosque, described as be the “last kampung mosque in Singapore” – itself a remnant of a forgotten world. The 60 to 70-year-old tree is believed to have resisted all attempts to have it cut down – it is said that those who have attempted to cut it down had been struck ill in a fashion similar to many other trees found across the island that are believed to be inhabited by spirits.

On this, another story from the area does come to mind. The story is one that takes us back to the days when the huge King George IV graving dock  was being constructed – one that also involved a rubber tree that needed to be cleared to level the ground to build the dock. Workers had feared chopping the tree down for similar reasons, resulting in a delay in the construction. That tree did eventually get removed and act that was thought to be responsible for the deaths of several people involved in its removal that were to follow. More on this story can be found in a previous post, Last Post Standing.

Like the mosque beside it – which operates on a Temporary Occupation License, the tree is on State land and does face an uncertain future. While the area close to the mosque has so far been spared from development, the redevelopment of the area does seem to be gaining momentum. Not far away, we already see an area that once belonged to those who lived off the sea, given to those who in modern Singapore, are can pay the price it costs now to afford the luxury of living by the sea. It does seem to only be a matter of time before the brave new world does arrive in the area. Until then, we do for now, have the story of the tree to listen to, as well as the wealth of stories of times past that will be lost when the new world does eventually arrive.

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The Gateway into the Lost World

25 02 2014

It is in a deserted and somewhat forgotten corner of Singapore that you will find the Gateway into the Lost World. Standing all on its own, it opens into a space now beautifully reclaimed by nature; a space in which little is given away of the world it might once have been.

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The gateway is all that is left of a dwelling place from where one could listen to the songs sung by the nearby sea. One of several found in the area, it shared the space with a village of humble wooden dwellings of which little remains except for a mosque. While there are no visuals that will allow us to picture what the house may have looked like, it is not hard to imagine the peace and joy its settings would have brought to its occupants.

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One who found joy in living by the same sea was the late James Westwater Ferrie. An architect, Ferrie lived in one of several houses found in the area of the now lonesome gates. Inspired by the setting he found himself living in, Ferrie, who was also a talented painter, found the time to also reproduce its seascapes in watercolour, more than 50 of which were exhibited at the Lone Pine Gallery in Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Parade Hotel) in 1986.

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Ferrie, who started James Ferrie and Partners, had been resident in Singapore since arriving from the UK in 1948. In an interview for his exhibition (27 January 1986 edition of The Straits Times), Ferrie , an avid sailor, spoke of his affinity with the sea having “always liked the sea” and being “closely associated with water”. Ferrie also described the his Sembawang home as one “with a garden stretching down to the sea” that provided him a view of “the skies and boats” depicted in his watercolours.

The nearby mosque in the woods (Masjid Petempatan Melayu).

The nearby mosque in the woods (Masjid Petempatan Melayu).

Ferrie passed away in February 1993, not long after he returned to the UK. By this time, his house by the sea and the cluster it was in, had already been acquired by the State. Now emptied of the boats that Ferrie depicted, it is perhaps only in Ferrie’s paintings that the memory of the area’s once colourful seas is now preserved.

The greenery that now surrounds the area.

The greenery that now surrounds the area.

Left temporarily on its own, the place its state of isolation, is one in which peace is still to be found. Given the pace at which redevelopment is taking place in the area, it is only a matter of time before a space in which an escape can be found is turned into yet another space one will then need an escape from.


Update June 2016:

I have been advised that there were four houses in the area of the gate built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The gate itself had led to a bungalow owned by a Mr Chua Boon Peng, who was the MD of Cycle and Carriage.


See also: History rich Sembawang, gateway to Singapore’s WWII past (Sunday Times 19 June 2016)





A song which soon will be forgotten

18 04 2013

For me, one of the most difficult things about being at home in Singapore is how little there is of what ties me to it that I can hold on to. The Singapore of today is one which bears little or no resemblance to the Singapore I grew up in, and one which I am very much attached to. I often find myself overcome with that sense of longing and sadness that accompanies a realisation that I can never return to that Singapore I fell in love growing up in.

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I find myself wandering through many of the altered spaces, in search of the little reminders that remain of those times forgotten, often leaving only with regret. Many of these spaces, now devoid of a way of life it once supported, are empty except for the clutter of ornaments inherited from the modern world.

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There are but a few spaces which have been spared this clutter. It is in the echoes of these spaces left without their souls, that I sometimes hear the singing of a song the lyrics of which might once have familiar.

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A familiar tune is still heard along the northern shores. Spared thus far from the interventions the modern world is too fond of, it is where the memory of naturally formed beaches, now a rare find, has been preserved. It is where perhaps a memory of a way of life we have forgotten can also be found in the casting of nets and rowing of sampan–like hulls.

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Alas, the familiar tune may soon be one we are to forget. The advance of a world in which it is hard to find sanity, has reached its doorstep. We see swanky beach front units that reek of the smell of money sprout in an area in which the smells would have been that of seawater soaked wood, of fishing nets drying in the sun, and of the catch from the sea. For how much longer will I be able to hear the familiar tune in my ears, I do not now know, but it is a tune I am determined to try to hear for as long as I am able to.

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About the beach and the former coastal villages :

The beach in the photographs is one of the last natural stretches of sandy beaches left in Singapore. It stretches from the seafront of Sembawang Park eastwards past the seawall at the former Kampong Wak Hassan and past the seafront area of the former Kampong Petempatan Melayu or Kampong Tengah, where it is broken by the mouth of a diverted and canalised former tributary of Sungei Simpang, Sungei Simpang Kiri. It would have run further east towards Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang – that area, currently used as a military training ground and is inaccessible, is a reserve site for public housing and will be the future Simpang New Town – the coastline of which will be altered by land reclamation based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan 2008.

Kampong Petempatan Melayu or Kampong Tengah was a Malay Settlement which was established in the 1960s on some 16.5 ha. of land acquired by the Government from the Bukit Sembawang Group. It was a group of three coastal villages just east of the Naval Base which also included Kampong Tanjong Irau to its east and Kampong Wak Hassan to its west. A mosque, touted as the “last kampong mosque in Singapore”, the Masjid Petempatan Melayu, was built in Kampong Tengah which still stands today, despite the disappearance of the village.

Coming a full circle, the land fronting the beach is currently being developed by the Bukit Sembawang Group as a luxury development, Watercove Ville which will see some 80 strata houses built, and in all probability, the beach and beachfront will soon have to be made over.