A window into a Singapore we have discarded

6 05 2014

Update, 3 December 2016:

The house featured, Teck Seng’s Place, will be open on the 2nd and 4th weekend of the month and public holidays, from 10.00am – 2.00pm from. The house is also one of the highlights in NParks’ Kampung Tour, which is held on every third Saturday of the month. The house together with the Ubin Fruit Orchard will also feature in NParks’ new Rustic Reflections Tour, which will commence next year on every third Saturday of the month. More information on the tours can be found at https://www.nparks.gov.sg/ubin.


It may well be on the island from which the early building blocks of modern Singapore was obtained that we will find the last reminders of a way of life the new world it built has rendered irrelevant. The island, Pulau Ubin or the granite island, is the last to support the remnants of a once ubiquitous village community, a feature not only of the island but also much of a rural Singapore we no longer see.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

While in all probability, the days for what’s left of the island’s village communities are numbered; there remains only a handful of villagers who now number in their tens rather than in the low thousands at its height and who hold stubbornly on to a way of life that will have little appeal to the generations that will follow; there at least in a well preserved village house, House 363B, that little reminder of a time and place that does now seem all too far away.

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House 363B is typical of a Chinese village dwelling, with a zinc roof, and a cemented base supporting half cemented and half wooded walls. Outside it, rubber sheet rollers tell us of days when much of the rural landscape had been dominated by rubber trees. On the inside, there is a collection of once familiar household items. These include a food safe – complete with receptacles placed under its four legs to keep insects out (a necessity in homes in the pre-refrigerator era), classic furniture, foot-pedal sewing machines, dachings and other implements of that forgotten age. It is in the house where life as it might have been, sans life itself, is being showcased, providing the generations of the future with a glimpse of how we did once live.

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The house is perhaps symbolic of what we in Singapore hope for Ubin, not just an ready made escape from the brave new world we have embraced just a short boat ride away, but in its wild, undisturbed, and unmanicured state, a world where we can relive a life we have discarded.

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Ubin does of course offer potentially more than that. The authorities do seem to be committed to not only keeping it in its rustic state for our future generations, but are also taking efforts to regenerate and protect its natural environment. This along with the noises being heard on an interest to keep what is left of the island’s heritage, the efforts taken in developing environmentally friendly solutions in the provision of electrical power for the island, and the attempts to engage Singaporeans on what they would like to see of Ubin (see also Enhancing Pulau Ubin’s heritage and rustic charm), does give us hope that Ubin will not become another part of a forgotten Singapore that will be lost.

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On the subject of Pulau Ubin, the Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), hosts an annual festival in honour of the deity over 6 days this year from 12 to 17 May 2014. It is well worth a visit there to soak up an atmosphere of a traditional religious celebration in a setting that is only available on the island.

The highlights of the celebration, besides the religious ceremonies, include Teochew Opera performances on each of the first five evenings (12 to 16 May) at 7pm and one in the morning of the last day at 10 am, as well as a Getai performance on the last evening that does draw a huge crowd. Free boat rides to Ubin will also be offered during the festival evenings from 6.30 pm (to Ubin) and up to 10 pm (from Ubin). More information on this year’s festival can be found at this site.

More information on previous Getai and Teochew Opera performances on Pulau Ubin can be found at the following posts:


About house 363B, Teck Seng’s Place (information from NParks)

Overlooking the Sensory Trail ponds, House 363B has been refurbished and conserved as a model of a Chinese kampung house. Built in the 1970s, the house was owned by Mr Chew Teck Seng who used to operate a provision shop in the village centre known as ‘Teck Seng Provision Shop’. When Mr Chew’s family resettled to mainland Singapore mainland in 2005, the house was returned to the state.

Renamed ‘Teck Seng’s Place’, the house offers visitors a nostalgic trip back in time to life on Pulau Ubin during the 1970s. The interpretive signs and memorabilia, like retro furniture and old photographs, centre around the fictional narrative of the Tan family, highlighting key milestones such as the grandfather’s first voyage to Pulau Ubin from China, the family’s struggles to eke out a sustainable living, as well as the growth of the family.

The house will be open on the 2nd and 4th weekend of the month and public holidays, from 10.00am – 2.00pm. Teck Seng’s Place is currently one of the highlights in NParks’ Kampung Tour, held on every third Saturday of the month. Ubin Fruit Orchard and Teck Seng’s Place will also be highlights in NParks’ new Rustic Reflections Tour, which will commence next year on every third Saturday of the month. Members of the public can visit NParks’ website (https://www.nparks.gov.sg/ubin) for updates and more information on how to register for these guided tours.






The mosque at the 778.25 km marker

16 05 2012

It was a year ago that interest in the former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line that ran through Singapore started to peak as the realisation hit many in Singapore that the last days of the railway line were upon us. Many embarked on their own journeys through Tanjong Pagar Station to have the experience of the railway and a journey through the grand old station. There were many who also explored the land on which the railway ran on foot – catching glimpses and taking snapshots to remember a world that was about to change forever. Whether it is from the vantage of the rail carriage or from the ground, there is no doubt many would have realised that a world far apart from the one we lived in existed along the corridor along which the railway ran through, one that in many ways took one, without leaving Singapore’s borders, far away from Singapore.

Masjid Hang Jebat as seen from a passing train. Many otherwise hidden parts of Singapore, some which takes us far away from the Singapore we now know, could be seen from the trains that used to run through Singapore.

One of the places along the corridor that would certainly have been noticed is a cluster of zinc roofed buildings close to where the 778.25 km distance marker was, a place if one was on the northbound train one would pass about 7 minutes out of the station just around the bend after passing under the Gillman Flyover and Alexandra Hospital. The cluster of buildings belongs to the Masjid Hang Jebat, a mosque that lies not on railway land but on a part of Singapore, Wessex Estate, that once was home to British army personnel. It is to Wessex Estate that the mosque owes its establishment; but that it exists to this day is probably a result of the railway that ran beside it – protecting the area from being developed all these years. The name of the surau and later the mosque, comes from Jalan Hang Jebat in Wessex Estate, at the end of which the mosque stands.

The mosque as seen in July 2011, just after the cessation of KTM railway services to Tanjong Pagar.

The 778.25 km marker that once stood close to the mosque.

The setting for the mosque certainly takes one far from the Singapore we have come to know. Set amid the wonderful greenery that the area is blessed with, the coconut palms that tower over the mosque and the cluster of banana trees reminds us of an old Singapore we have quickly sought to forget. On one of my recent visits to the area, a man emerges from the cluster of buildings now decorated with green floral motifs and greets me. He is Jimmy – the man who apparently is behind what now decorates the buildings. Jimmy tells me that the motifs are fairly recent addition, painted on to coincide with the Prophet’s birthday. “The decoration changes every year,” Jimmy says, going on to explain that he was the artist behind the decorations.

The rural setting in which the Masjid Hang Jebat is in.

All evidence of the railway has since been removed.

As I step through what looks like a little canteen that is reminiscent of the ones we find in the villages across the Causeway, Jimmy relates how he has been connected to the mosque since he was a young boy. He then lived in a block of flats in Queens Crescent which has since been demolished and has come to the mosque ever since. Saturdays he says are especially busy days at the mosque and like he did in his younger days, many come for religious instruction (including intending converts to the religion) and to play Sepak Takraw in the yard.

The recently decorated hall.

The artist, Jimmy, posing for a photograph.

It was in fact in serving the residents of the area, Queens Crescent being one, as well as nearby residential clusters in the early days of Queenstown that included Queens Close, Stirling Road and Tanglin Halt, that was instrumental in seeing what was started as surau, a prayer room, expand into the mosque it is today. The surau was built in the early 1960s exclusively for use by Muslim serving in the British forces based in Wessex Estate, in what was an area that was fenced-up (although many in the area managed to find a way in). With the British withdrawal in 1971, the surau and the land on which it sits on were opened up and donations were collected to expand the prayer room into a mosque to accommodate the growing population in the area.

Warong Hang Jebat … a stall set in the mosque’s canteen that is reminiscent of village stalls across the Causeway.

Today, the mosque sits in relative silence, no longer serenaded by the sounds of the railway, evidence of has been removed. It is a refreshing escape from the noise and haste of the new world that Singapore is, but for how long, we don’t know. Behind the mosque, a clump of banana trees reminds me of a world we have long since abandoned. I observe a few kampung chickens coming down from a wooden coop running freely around the grassy area by the banana trees. The chickens, I am told, had until recently been wild – having emerged from the surrounding vegetation after the railway stopped running. That perhaps is a sign that the wild world that was once part of the railway land will inevitably be tamed … My hope is that tamed it is not and the wonderful parts of that world which still are there such as this mosque, will still be there to remind us of that gentler world from which the cold grey one we now live in once came from.

A clump of banana trees reminds me of a gentler world we have long abandoned.

Behind the mosque … a chicken coop holds village chickens that until recently, had run wild.

A view of the mosque from a path that leads to Wessex Estate.

Kampung Chickens.