Once Tanah Merah …

16 08 2010

There was at Tanah Merah, an idyllic world that in the Singapore of today, would be rather difficult to imagine. Set on a landscape on which the gentle undulations seemed to blend those of a forgotten sea, except for where a set of cliffs – the larger of two from which the area derives its name – stood, it was a most picturesque of spots and one in which many found an escape.

Caressed by the gentle breeze of the forgotten sea, Tanah Merah was where life was pretty; both for the occupants of the generously diemnsioned villas overlooking the sea, as it was for those whose humbler dwellings were marked by their thatched attap roofs.

Life was very much a beach for me, spending magical holidays by the sea in the Tanah Merah of old!

I first met the acquaintance of Tanah Merah as a child of three. A holiday taken at a huge government bungalow my parents were guests at, was to be the start of many early childhood encounters I was to have with the area.

Plymouth, the bungalow by the sea, near the village of Ayer Gemuroh, was one of two of a similar sort. The other was called Newquay. Perched on a small elevation that had overlooked the sea, it was typical of a colonial era house, its well selected position, a testament to the knack the British had for the best locations to house their colonial administrators.

The grounds of the bungalows at Tanah Merah, the Plymouth, at which I stayed at in Dec 1967 can be seen in the background.

As was typical of such houses, the bungalow was raised over the ground on stilt like columns. That I suppose, not only kept the vermin out, but also allowed ventilation through the slits in the wooden floorboards to keep the house cool in the oppressive tropical heat.

The bungalow would have been handed over to the Singapore government in the transition of the island from the colony to a state in the Federation and then independence. Several in the east, where the best beaches in Singapore were, were turned into holiday bungalows. This was to the benefit of the many civil service officers, in days when holidays at home by the sea were the fashion.

The entrance doorway of the Plymouth was accessible through a short flight of stairs.

The bungalow’s grassy and expansive grounds were shared with the neighbouring bungalow. A flight of stairs at its seaward end led to a terrace where benches allowed one to stare at the beach and sea beyond it.  Both the beach and the sea were accessible via another flight of stairs.

From the grounds, one climbed a short flight of stairs to the raised floor of the bungalow. This brought one up to a landing that led to a well ventilated lounge and dining area. Large airy bedrooms were also spread across the bungalow’s single level. The kitchen, and what would have been rooms that served as servants’ quarters, were found on behind the bungalows at ground level.

The expansive grounds where the bungalows were located was on a hillock close to Kampong Ayer Gemuruh that overlooked the sea.

The area around Ayer Gemuroh all was rather interesting. I would be given many views of the area from the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100 over the years that were to follow. The drives would take us from the holiday bungalows we would subsequently stay at in Mata Ikan, just southwest of Ayer Gemuroh, all the way to eastern ends of Changi Beach near Telok Paku where the waters were more pristine and also beyond which a favourite haunt of my parents, Changi Village, lay.

Map of the Kampong Ayer Gemuruh area showing the location of the Plymouth and Newquay (map source: Peter Chan).

The drives would take us through Wing Loong Road, down the area of the cliffs near where the road ended at Tanah Merah Besar Road. Moving beyond the T-junction, the road would become the marvellous Nicoll Drive, which ran along the casuarina lined beach and the sea, taking us past among other things, a children’s home.

Village scene, Kampong Ayer Gemuruh, 1963 (source: Peter Chan who obtained this photograph through a British guy whose father had worked in RAF Changi in the 1960s).

One of the sights to look out for during the drives would be David Marshall’s house by the sea. I was to learn much later that Marshall, who served as Singapore’s first Chief Minister upon the attainment of self-government, had the house named Tumasek and that it was where he entertained guests with his famous Sunday “curry lunches”. Marshall had set eyes on the house from a very young age and was able to purchase it only much later when its owner, a retiring accountant, wanted to sell it.

Aerial view of the coastline at the Tanah Merah area in 1964, close to the junction of Wing Loong Road with Tanah Merah Besar Road showing the “white cliffs” (source: Peter Chan).

The house then seemed a wonderful sight to behold. Set high over the sea, it greeted you especially on the approach from the northeast. It was from this point that the road  wound its way to Ayer Gemuroh and continued to the area where Mata Ikan was. The road moved inland from Mata Ikan towards Somapah Village. A path along the coastline would have taken one to Padang Terbakar and just beyond that to Bedok Corner

I had my first encounter with Kuda Kepang, a somewhat mystical dance of Javanese origins in which two-dimensional representations of horses are used, in passing Ayer Gemuroh on one of the drives. It was being performed in a clearing in the village for a wedding, as it would have been commonly seen in those days. Another sight from the village that would be etched in my memory is that of a group of boys walking around with their sarongs held away from their bodies by a frame. I would learn that the boys had just been circumcised and the frames, which presumably made of rattan, kept the sarongs from making painful contact with what must have been an especially tender spot.

Aerial view of the coastline at the Tanah Merah area in 1964, showing also Wing Loong Road (source: Peter Chan).

Another description of the area has also be provided by Peter Chan, who often guest blogs on Lam Chun See’s wonderful Good Morning Yesterday blog. I am also grateful to Peter for his aerial photographs, maps and some of the photographs in this post:

When you travel down Tanah Merah Besar Road, (after the junction with Tampines Road) you go down the “valley” and up the top then down the “valley” until you reach Nicoll drive junction. There was a sand pit on the left of Tanah Merah Besar Road (just before the junction) – you see like what you find in Malaya’s tin mining open cast mining this wooden “slide”.

Once you turn into Nicoll Drive on your right was Casuarina Motel (later called Aloha Rhu Village opened in 1971) with Hawaiian waitresses dressed in grass skirts. Then next was the Singapore Handicapped Home or Cheshire Chidlren’s home. In front of those homes was a WW2 pill-box.

You would then drive to 14 milestone Nicoll Drive. On your right you see one wooden community building – PA operated I think, called Tanah Merah Holiday Camp. There is a sharp bend to the right because there was the RAF Eastern Dispersal Area, and a road straight again to the Teluk Paku Road junction.

After this junction you find government division 1 holiday bungalows (black and white type, modern bungalows also – now where I think the SIA Engineering hangers are).

Teluk Mata Ikan was accessible from Wing Loong Road (metaled road), also from David Marshall house, from which one must pass 2SIB HQ called Tanah Merah Camp, which was built in 1966, There was also access from the north through Somapah Road.

There was a kampung and mosque at Ayer Gemuroh facing a cliff. Here are some photos you might need. I have written these up in my memories book. The PA venue could be called either Tanah Merah Holiday Camp or Changi Holiday Camp. The modern bungalows during RAF era were called B & H Bungalows (Brighton & Hoove still operate similar place in south England today)”.

The gateway to Tanah Merah. The junction of Tanah Marah Beasr Road, Changi Road and Tampines Road. The watch tower was a landmark in the area and was to watch over the perimeter fence around the piece of land in the background where prisoners from Changi Prison would be put to work (source: Peter Chan).

I suppose, beyond the descriptions provided, it would still be hard to fully appreciate what Tanah Merah was. Sadly for us and for the residents of the area, all the wonderment that a most beautiful of places provided, lives now only in our memories. That Tanah Merah, and its beautiful coast, lies in an area swallowed up by the massive land reclamation project of the early 1970s. Altering much of Singapore’s southern shores. In the case of Tanah Merah, it was to provide the land on which Changi Airport was to be built (a September 1970 news report in the Straits Times provides some information on the reclamation effort).

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline …

The reclamation brought to not just a time of magical adventures for me. It altered the lives of many who had lived and had an attachment to an area of which little evidence other than a name, is left these days. Some of the area lies under Changi Airport with Ayer Gemuroh itself, buried under Taxiway WA (which runs along Runway 02L of Changi Airport). I have included a Google Earth map below, in an attempt to identify the approximate locations of the places I have mentioned.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

All I have left of the most magical of places are some photographs, many fond memories, and a deep longing to return to an area that provided me with a joy that I have never again had the experience of.

tanah-merah

Tanah Merah Besar, 1958, posted by Graham Collins on Facebook.





Smokey’s and a Red House: Memories of Victoria Street from Bras Basah to Middle Road

28 02 2010

For the SJI schoolboy in the late 1970s, Victoria Street offered an appealing escape from the boredom of the classroom. It was not just for the two convent schools that stradled the ends of the stretch of Victoria Street in question (from Bras Basah Road to Middle Road), but also for the other distractions to the classroom that was on offer. The area around the corner of Bras Basah Road was perhaps where we were most familiar with. As we made our way from school or from the bus stop in front of the City Music outlet on Bras Basah Road roughly where the NTUC Income Centre is today, we would come to this corner where the window display of test tubes, beakers and laboratory supplies of the Central Medical Hall which occupied the corner unit of Victoria Building never failed to catch my eye.

A building belonging to the Singapore Management University stands in place of the two storey Victoria Building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street. The Central Medical Hall occupied the corner unit of the Victoria Building.

Around the medical hall, was the row of shops that included a coffee shop that we dubbed as “Smokey’s”, where many of us grabbed a cup of tea in the morning, motivated by the steady stream of convent school girls that dropped in on their way to school. I never found out why we called it Smokey’s and I understand that there were sumptuous beef brisket noodles on offer there, not that I noticed it then. Perhaps we did not have the time to dwell on all that, with the distractions offered by the comings and goings that we observed over the steaming hot cups of tea.

Two rows of steel pillars now lines the row where Smokey's and the Shanghai Bookstore was.

Tea was always served piping hot there, in the thick walled kopi-tiam (coffee shop) cups and saucers of old, complete with green motifs and hairline cracks in the baked porcelain that appeared through the glazing. This offered us the opportunity to observe world within the confines of the white tiled walls of the coffee shop, across the marble table tops and wooden chairs typical of the coffee shops of old.

Further down the row, perhaps at the end of Victoria Building, was the Shanghai bookstore, with its two storeys of Chinese books, smelling as a bookstore of those days did – a smell that I can still recall to this day. The second floor of the shop had a stationery section where many of the white uniformed boys of SJI could be seen, cooling off in the coolest part of the air-conditioned bookshop.

The Shanghai Bookstore was a popular hangout.

A few doors away from the bookstore, the Victoria Hotel stood. Next to the lobby on the ground floor of the hotel, there was another place that offered respite from the heat – one of the few air-conditioned chicken rice restaurants in those days, the Victoria Restaurant, which was quite popular with Singaporeans, seeking an cooler dining alternative from the more popular Swee Kee Restaurant on nearby Middle Road.

The Victoria Restaurant on the ground floor of the Victoria Hotel was popular for its Chicken Rice and Air-conditioned premises.

The Victoria Restaurant was located on the ground floor of the Victoria Hotel.

The stretch where the Shanghai Book Store and the Victoria Restaurant was.

Further along, there was the Hotel New Hong Kong, which became the Hotel Tai-Pan when I went to school. This is where the Allson Hotel now stands. Next door to this is the rectory building of St. Joseph’s Church and the entrance to the compound which holds the Church, St. Anthony’s Boys School and St. Anthony’s Convent, before the junction with Middle Road.

The rectory of St. Joseph's Church along Victoria Street.

St. Joseph's Church as seen from Victoria Street.

St. Anthony's Convent (see here from Middle Road with the National Library in the background) used to look across Victoria Street to the Empress Hotel.

The view of St. Anthony's Convent in the 1950s from a similar vantage point.

My own memories of the area on the other side of the road, where the brand new National Library building now stands, are rather vague and on this I have been helped out by a reader Greg Lim, who lived in the area in the 1950s, as well as by my mother who was a boarder at St. Anthony’s Convent in the late 1940s and the 1950s. There was the Empress Hotel which stood at the corner, which was apparently known for its mooncakes. My mother describes a sign that she remembered, standing out of the hotel building, proclaiming that the “Queen of Mooncakes” was sold there. My mother describes the hotel as being a rather seedy place, to which the nuns at the convent forbade the boarders and orphans whose windows in the boarding house across the street from the hotel faced, to look at. Greg also mentions that the six storey Empress Hotel was also notorious for being a location that was popular with people attempting to commit suicide.

The National Library Building now dominates the area bounded by Middle Road, Victoria Street, North Bridge Road and Bain Street and stands where the Empress Hotel, Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane once stood.

Holloway Lane in 1958 (Source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

Moving on this side of the street back towards Bras Basah Road, there were two streets there which have since disappeared, Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane, still within the parcel of land on which the National Library is built on. Both were lined with rows of shophouses. The area is described by Greg as being referred to as the Hylam streets, a reference to the Hainanese families and businesses that dominated the area. The area also featured many furniture shops, and my mother says that an uncle of mine had bought his first set of furniture from the area.

Bain Street today - devoid of the vibrancy that the area was once know for.

Bain Street on which Greg lived, which is still there, running along Bras Basah Complex, as Greg describes was dominated by a four storey building named Victoria Court, at the junction with Victoria Street. On the ground floor, there was a furniture shop called Comfort Furniture and on the opposite corner, there was a shop that made mattresses. Bras Basah complex, which was built in 1980, was built in the area between the once vibrant Bain, Cashin, Carver and Miller Streets that were known for bookshops and hawker food. The complex itself housed many of the bookshops and watch dealers that were moved out of Bras Basah Road and North Bridge Road areas. Greg mentions that most shops along Victoria Street were furniture shops. Bain St as Greg notes was famous for Hainanese coconut pastry and beef noodles in black sauce. Miller Street is dominated by the Siakson building and with Carver Street, served as the main access for many of us heading to Odeon Cinema which was along North Bridge Road – that was where I watched Star Wars in 1977.

Bras Basah complex, which was built in 1980, was built in the area between the once vibrant Bain, Cashin, Carver and Miller Streets that were known for bookshops and hawker food.

The Siakson Building dominates Miller Street.

The spiral staircase of the Siakson Building.

Past Miller Street, right at the end of this stretch of Victoria Street at the junction with Bras Basah Road, where the Carlton Hotel now stands, was the well known red painted shophouse that housed the popular Red House Bakery and Cafe which was popular which many students for the reasonably priced set meals on offer.

The corner where the Red House was.


Added on 14 April 2010:

Victoria Street c.1981. The four storey building would be Victoria Court which was at the corner of Victoria and Bain Streets. The HDB block of flats in the background is Bras Basah complex (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).