The long road to Somapah

26 06 2015

Excerpts of an interview with Mr Lim Jiak Kin:

From the late 1950s to the 1970s, I had a relative who lived in Mata Ikan. This was close to Somapah Village where my mother’s best friend lived. Her second son was my second brother’s god-brother.

The approach to Somapah and Mata Ikan was via Somapah Road, lined on the left and right with rows of shophouses. I remember a tailor, as well as a corner shop where my mother’s best friend ran a permanent wave salon. The salon was air-conditioned – a big deal in those days and it was where we always stopped on the way to Mata Ikan.

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

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

I also remember that there were shophouses opposite the permanent wave shop, in front of which were some very good food stalls. One hawker sold fish porridge and another sold fried oysters. The stalls were relocated to Changi Village when Somapah was resettled. Right next to the permanent wave salon was an open-air cinema.

Somapah Road, at its junction with Jalan Somapah Timor (National Archives online catalogue).

By the side of the cinema there was a little slope where a number of stalls had been set up. This was where the morning market was held and where freshly cooked food and fish were sold. The fish would probably have been brought in from the sea at Mata Ikan, one or two kilometres away. Driving past the market, you would come to a child and maternal clinic. Farther in there were holiday bungalows, corporate as well as private ones.

Mata Ikan 1973

A playground at the Government holiday bungalows at Mata Ikan.

After stopping by the salon, we would head to the end of Somapah Road. That was where we would find the last house by the sea, a house of wood and attap typical of a Malaysian beach hut, standing under a coconut tree.

That was our main destination, a provision shop run by a good friend of my father’s. He was a relative of sorts, having originated from the same ancestral village in Hainan as my father. This man and his Teochew wife lived at the back of the house and kept chickens, reserving the best of them and also their eggs for my father for the Chinese New Year.

Across the path from the provision shop was a small shed. That was where my father’s friend turned crushed cockle shells into a ‘dough-like’ kapor to be sold as whitewash. Packed into wooden crates measuring one foot by one foot and two to three feet high, the kapor would be put on sale in paint shops. Competition from low-end, but superior-quality paints introduced by established paint-makers, had seen the trade gradually dying out.

I remember that the population of the Somapah area was mainly Chinese. Among the various dialect groups was a large Hainanese community and I can recall the Hainanese-run Kwang Boo Kok Suat Thuan. The head of the association was one of the founders of the Long Beach Seafood Restaurant that used to operate in the now long-gone Bedok Rest House.

Kwang Boo Kok Suat Tuan on the Changi 10 Mile Facebook Page.

I have many fond memories of my trips to Somapah and Mata Ikan. It was an outing that to a young boy, seemed almost like an overseas trip. Not many people had the opportunity to travel to the beach by car in those days. We would head there in an Austin A40 with the registration plate SC 644 that my mother would drive. There would be five of us; my parents, my two brothers and me, and we would take the drive on Sundays when my father was free.

Somapah Village was one of the main settlements in the area and served as the gateway to some of the villages that lay along the old coastline.

Somapah Village, in the National Archives online catalogue.

The drive was a long but scenic one. It seemed a long journey even in later years when made on board a lorry that left from the Capitol Cinema, near where the Bata shop was. Sitting on a plank in the back of the lorry about an hour into the journey, I would always look out for the “阿弥陀佛” (a mi tuo fo) temple opposite the Bedok Army Camp, as a sign that we were nearing our destination, the site of the picnic we were attending.

As a city dweller living in a two-storey shophouse with only the very dangerous Odeon car park to run about in, I felt like a caged dog being let loose when we went to the beach. It always meant getting my feet wet, picking up shells and sitting under coconut trees – a real treat that to this day I can still picture in my dreams.


More memories of Somapah Village and Mata Ikan

The site of Somapah Village is now occupied by the campus of the recently erected Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). The heart of the village stood at the meeting of Somapah Road, which has since been realigned, and Upper Changi Road.  Mata Ikan, was a holiday destination for many in days when it was the fashion to take vacations by the sea. Its site would be close to where Changi South Ave 3 is today.

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline ...

Approximate locations of some of the missing villages of the Changi / Somapah area.






Adventures in a pill box

3 08 2011

Sifting through some old photographs, I found one of a machine gun pill box that I had as a young boy had many adventures in. The pill box, was one of many that were scattered along the southern coastline of Singapore and one that has all but disappeared (save for the one at Labrador Park) from the southern shores – most having been demolished in the early part of the 1970s. The particular pillbox that is the subject of the photograph, was one that was located close to the fishing village of Mata Ikan, in the days before land reclamation work commenced which added the extension to our southern shores which provided part of the land on which Changi Airport is built on.

The Pill Box at Mata Ikan in 1970.

Mata Ikan, of which I have mentioned in previous posts on the holiday bungalows my family used to frequent, and also in a post on Somapah Village which I always saw as a gateway to Mata Ikan, was for a while a playground for me, having spent many holidays by the sea in and around the area. It was where I first used a fishing rod – a simple bamboo one with a fixed length of line and a hook at its end, fishing for catfish by tghe stream which ran to the west of the holiday bungalows. What the photograph of the pill box evokes is a few memories I have of playing in the pill box with friends, pretending to be soldiers with a piece of drift wood picked up from the beach serving as a rifle, peeping out towards the sea through the openings at the front. There is also that memory of the stench one got from the pillboxes, the stench that probably came from the litter that lay rotting on the ground within the pill boxes. It is a stench I will never forget, but one that brings with it the memories of my adventures in another lost part of Singapore’s past.





Memories of the lost world that was Somapah Village

16 12 2010

I have but vague memories of a world that once lay at the gateway to my playground by the sea. It was a world that now seems so distant in time and in space, and one that for me comes back in bits and pieces. That was the world that was once the bustling Somapah Village, located close to the 10th milestone of Changi Road, a place that was a major settlement in the area, deserving a mention in the RAF Information Booklet for New Arrivals for its Veterinary Clinic from which dog licenses could be obtained: “Travelling from Changi, Somapah Road is the first turning left after the overhead pedestrian crossing in Suicide Village – an off-white bungalow almost at the end of the road”.

Somapah Village was one of the main settlements in the area and served as the gateway to some of the villages that lay along the old coastline (source: National Archives).

My acquaintance with the village goes back to the early days of Singapore’s independence, when my parents who were in the civil service, made regular use of the Government holiday bungalows near Mata Ikan Village. Somapah Village was where Somapah Road met Upper Changi Road and served as a gateway to the coastal villages that lay to the south-east of it, including Mata Ikan, which was located a mile or so down the road at the coastal end of Somapah Road. Passing through the part of the village which had always seemed a hive of activity in the mornings was also the trigger for me to look out for the red swastika that would be perched on the top of a building, having developed a fascination for the symbol from the many encounters I had with the Nazis that had to do less with my overactive imagination than with the nightly dose of the exploits of Vic Morrow’s character Sgt. Saunders on Combat! The red swastika belonged to the Red Swastika School that was in a quiet part of the village along Somapah Road on the right as we made our way towards Mata Ikan, and was the left facing symbol used by the Taoist Red Swastika Society as opposed to the right facing swastika used by the Nazis, not that I noticed it then.

A photograph of the old Red Swastika School along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School's website).

Besides the memories of the red swastika, I do have some further memories of Somapah, two of which relate to visit to the GP’s clinic which was on the right side of the village along Somapah Road (facing south). What I can recollect was that it was perched on a raised area from the road, a unit in a row of shophouses. Both visits made to the GP were certainly painful ones, the first involved my mother who needed the GP’s attention to remove a fish hook which had lodged into the flesh around her knee as she climbed over a sea wall at Mata Ikan. The second was made for my benefit, one in which I sought relief from a painful encounter with the zipper of my shorts.

A scene from Somapah Village in 1986 - I believe the GP's clinic was in the row of shops in the background (source: National Archives).

It wasn’t so much the GP’s clinic that my earliest memories of the village were connected with. Those were of the market, which I believe was on the side opposite the shops where the GP’s clinic was located. It was where (the bungalows we holidayed at were self-catering and featured a well equipped kitchen), my mother would on every other day during our stays, shop for supplies of fresh produce and fish. We could of course rely on the mobile vendors: vegetables, fish, meat and eggs were sold from the back of a pick-up or a van that went from house to house, but the market always offered a much larger assortment. The market was where I had my earliest memories of seeing Sting Rays up close, displayed on the table of a fishmonger close to the entrance of the market. Being the inquisitive child that I was, the market was always a great source of fascination for me.

A barber's shop at Somapah Village (source: National Archives).

On the subject of mobile vendors, one that I was particularly fond of seeing was the bread vendor, who made an appearance every morning with his colourful display of bread dangling from a rack of sorts that was mounted on the back of a motorcycle. His arrival meant I could get my day’s supplies of the sweet grated coconut buns that I never could wait to sink my teeth into. Another one on two wheels that I would look out for would have been the milkman, with a milk can mounted at the back of his bicycle from which he would dispense milk in glass bottles. It is only very recently that I realised that the milk actually came from a dairy farm that was in Somapah Village itself – learning of the farm’s existence from an article on the ThinkQuest website.

A Chinese Temple (source: National Archives).

There are a few who remember the area having lived in the village, including a few readers who were kind enough to share their memories of Somapah on my post on Mata Ikan. One was a Mr Koh who described where the GP’s clinic I mentioned was: “The GP’s clinic was indeed situated close to a row of shophouses. It was located up a small slope called Jalan Somapah Timor. It was opened in 1962. Opposite the clinic and across the road was an open field with some cattle for diary purpose. Beside the clinic was a PAP kindergaten, my first school. Opposite it was a small police post. The market was an open-air market. Some of the vendors had shops with wooden top for their goods; the rest would place their items on ground sheets”. Another who goes by the moniker “sotong” added “my first sch was the PAP kindergarten too. i used to stayed in a house at jalan somapah timor, where the airport was separated from my place by a major road..still rem often seeing and hearing plane flying over my house. Also rem the days accompanying my mum to the market near my kumpung, eating chicken rice in this shop for i think 50cents per pack. but unfortunately i can’t rem exactly where my old house use to be located”.

Chinese Medicine Shop at Somapah Village (source: National Archives).

These days, there isn’t really much to remind us of that Somapah. The village and all around it has all but disappeared and only a few remnants of the area are left. Most of Somapah Road has gone, just a little maybe 50 metre stretch left of it located somewhere close to where Singapore Expo is off Changi South Avenue 1, relegated to a road that serves as a driveway to a car park. Across the road there are a few reminders of the time from which my experiences of Somapah Village were connected with including some of the roads such as Jalan Tiga Ratus and the buildings that were the former Changkat Changi Primary School that rose on a small hill along the Changi Road (now Upper Changi Road) next to Jalan Tiga Ratus which was built in the later half of the 1960s.

Across the road at Jalan Tiga Ratus, the buildings that were the Changkat Changi Secondary School (1st Photo) and Changkat Changi Primary School (2nd and 3rd Photo) built in the latter part of the 1960s still stand.

Across the road a big void greets the observer where once a bustling Somapah Road and Village had stood.

A gate stands across where Somapah Road had once run towards the coastal village of Mata Ikan.

What used to be Somapah Road near the junction with Upper Changi Road.

Where a village once stood ... now an empty field.


The little bit of Somapah Road that's left ... relegated to an access road for a car park.

A dead end for Somapah Road.

The view of the empty grassland from the south.





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.





Listening to the song of the sea

11 06 2010

Sitting by a beach over the past week and listening to the sound of the waves lapping up the shore, took me back to that wonderful part of my childhood spent by the sea. It was not that I lived by the sea, but it did seem that I was never far from it, having had many wonderous moments in my early childhood along the eastern shores of Singapore. Besides the sandy Changi shoreline, to which I was introduced to at a very early age, there was another part of Singapore close to Changi, in which I had some wonderful experiences. That was where we would sometimes holiday at, a picturesque and idyllic part of Singapore that has since been lost to the massive land reclamation project that has altered much of the eastern coastline. In those days, holidays were rarely taken out of Singapore, and the government bungalows located amongst the coastal fishing villages that dotted the then shoreline running up from around where the southern boundary of Changi Airport is today up to what was the Tanah Merah area which is today right smack in the middle of Changi Ariport, were popular with many, as it was with my parents.

Spending a week by the beach brought me back in time to the wonderful moments I had by a seaside in Singapore that has long been forgotten.

The times we spent by the sea were magical ones, and somehow it was where I never seemed to be bored, which may have been reason enough for my parents to make the regular visits to the seaside that they did, given the restless soul that I was. But, my parents were themselves very fond of the seaside, and by day, the seaside was where we would often go to splash around in the sea. The sand was where I often ended up on, building sandcastles or digging pits in the sand with my spade and pail, which when close to the water’s edge, would fill up with water in which I could spend hours sitting in. Those were the days when sun block was unheard of and the most I would have on to protect myself from the sun was a hat or cap, and the hours spent in the sun always resulted in a painful sunburn, a week after which would be followed by a peeling of skin on the face, arms and back – areas which would have been most exposed to the sun. Somehow, getting sunburnt seemed to be part of the fun, although, I had a fair skinned friend who had it so bad that he had painful blisters on his back, following which his mother never allowed him into the sun again without a tee-shirt on. Playing by the sea did have other dangers besides getting sunburnt – on one occasion, a storm had been brewing and a few friends I was with had resisted many attempts by our parents to persuade us to take shelter. Somehow, we did heed the call and took shelter in one of the wooden huts which beachgoers could rent for the day, and it wasn’t a moment too soon that we did that, for the very moment we had huddled in the safety of the huts, there was a flash of light accompanied by a loud bang! Lightning had struck the very spot that my friends and I had been playing at.

Changi Beach, 1965

Changi Beach, 1965. I had an early introduction to the Sun, the Sand and the Sea.

The evenings by the sea had a magic of its own, and sitting around a fire built on twigs and leaves picked from the shore and fanned by the stiff cool land breeze. It would be where stories were exchanged by the older folks as the delicious aroma of the fruits harvested from the sea being singed by the flames rose from the fire. It was were we would stt for hours on the straw mats that we would have bought from the many vendors that we would have met on the beach, watching the flames reduced to ambers, and staring at the starry night sky from where Orion would cast his spell on me, accompanied by the soothing song of the sea.

I have always since the early introduction I had, been drawn to the seaside.

Much of what had given me that experience is lost today. Much of Changi Beach, which was by far was the best sandy stretch of beach in Singapore, has also disappeared, with only a short natural stretch of it left near the Teluk Paku area. Where we could once sit and listen to the sound of lapping waves in the shade of katapang trees to a view of tall coconut trees leaning to the sea, and rows of casurina trees that lined the shoreline, we now have to contend with the overly crowded man made beaches that over time are eaten up by the sea, listening not to lapping waves but to the rattle of the hoardes of people that descend onto the shoreline at the unnaturally landscaped East Coast Park.

The seaside is a wonderful place to start or end the day with.

As I grew up, I would always be drawn to the seaside, not so much to the ones we have here, but to places further afield. There are some, which from time to time I have the chance to see, where I could sit and listen as I always would to the song of the sea, that would bring me back to the wonderous days at a lost seaside that was much closer to home, back to a time and a place that can only be but a distant memory.

There is nothing more relaxing than listening to the sound of the lapping of waves against the shore.

The coconut fringed seaside at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. I have been drawn to the seaside, wherever I find myself in. There are some like this one, that would bring me back in time and to a place that is only a distant memory.