Monoscapes: Dawn of a new world

19 07 2013

Seen against the light of dawn by the Tebrau or Johor Strait is a fence at the beach in Sembawang. More recently erected, it marked, for some reason, a long discarded boundary between what used to be a huge British naval base, vacated in 1971 and the area to its east, once occupied by coastal villages, the last of which was cleared in the later half of the 1990s. The fence came down two weeks ago, coinciding with the completion of “renewal” work at Sembawang Park which was developed at the end of the 1970s on the eastern edge of the former base. For long spared from the huge wave of development that has swept across much of the island of Singapore, the Sembawang area is in the midst of change as new public housing and luxury private residential developments in the area will transform what was an area with a well known laid-back feel and old world charm into another well populated and overly manicured neighbourhood in new Singapore.

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Monoscapes: Dark clouds over Tanjong Pagar

22 04 2013

A storm brewing blows dark clouds over the Tanjong Pagar (port) Terminal where several container berths of the huge Port of Singapore which only recently was surpassed by Shanghai as the world’s busiest port and container port. The city terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Pulau Brani, which provide 29 out of a total of 52 container berths of the port – the remainder are at the Pasir Panjang Terminals, will eventually be moved westwards to Tuas Port. Work on expanding the Pasir Panjang terminals and on developing Tuas Port has already commenced. The lease on the city terminals expires in 2027 which will free waterfront land close to the city centre to be developed.

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The entire port of Singapore sees some 1000 vessels at any one time, with a ship arriving or leaving every 2 to 3 minutes. The port handles some 60000 containers in a day, coming a long way from its beginnings as a trading post for the British East India Company close to two centuries ago. The move westwards will end the port’s (and shipping companies) long established association with the Tanjong Pagar area, an association which has given much of the area its current flavour, and also one which can be said to have played a huge role in the transformation of Singapore to the modern and successful island nation it is today.





Monoscapes: Dawn on the strait

18 04 2013

7.20 am on the last day of March 2013, a man is seen casting a net, dwarfed by the silhouettes of towering structures of the approaching new world. The casting of the net, was an economic activity on the strait which was common in times past. Economic activities of the modern world have in the last four decades or so, made their appearance on the strait, and have made the activities of the old world less relevant.

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The Straits of Johor where this photograph was taken, also known as the Tebrau Strait or Selat Tebrau, was once the domain of a group of sea dwellers, a nomadic people referred to as the Orang Laut (which translates to “Sea People”) or Sea Gypsies. The sub-group of the Orang Laut,  referred to as the Orang Seletar or in their own language, Kon Seletar, moved around on boats which also served as homes through mangroves which once dominated both sides of the strait, living off the waters. The boats they lived on were about 20 feet long with a stove at one end and their dwellings at the other end under an awning of sorts.

The suggestions are that the group, who had already established themselves in the area well before Raffles landed in 1819 – it was reported that there were an estimated 200 Orang Seletar living on some 30 boats in Singapore when Raffles landed, took its name from the Sungei Seletar or Seletar River – which once spilled into the strait (it has since been dammed at its mouth).

Another suggestion is that the group had in fact given their name to the river. Seletar is also a name that the northern coastal area of Singapore which included what is Sembawang today (Sembawang Road was originally called Seletar Road) became known as. Seletar Island which is close to the mouth of Sungei Simpang, had in fact hosted a community of Orang Seletar up to 1967 or so.

One of the last to settle on land, the Orang Seletar have today largely assimilated into the larger Malay society and a greater number of them now live on the Johor side of the strait. In Singapore, there were several individuals from the community who intermarried and settled in Kampong Tanjong Irau. The kampong was also known to be the home of some Orang Kallang, another Orang Laut group who were originally from the mouth of the Kallang River who had initially been displaced from places such as Kampong Kallang Rokok on the Kallang River, moving first to the Seletar area. The construction of the airbase at Seletar meant they had to move again and some chose to move westwards to Tanjong Irau.





Monoscapes: The High Dam

17 04 2013

A mist shrouded scene in northern Singapore at 7.11 am on 16 April 2013, taken by the water’s edge. The body of water is Upper Seletar Reservoir created by the construction of a dam (seen running across the photograph) across the Seletar Valley.

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The origins of the reservoir can be traced to an initial attempt to build one in the 1920s which was abandoned when it became possible to pipe over water from the south of Johor with the completion of the Causeway. What came out of that was its use as a temporary source of water. In 1940, the reservoir was expanded and a permanent reservoir.

The huge and very picturesque body of water we see today, is the result of an expansion which took place in the late 1960s during which its capacity was expanded some 35 times. This required that the the dam across the Seletar Valley be enlarged.  The dam, referred to in its early years as the Seletar High Dam, is seen running across the photograph. The expansion of the reservoir also meant that Mandai Road had to be re-routed to skirt around the expanded reservoir.

More information on the dam and the reservoir can be found on a previous post:  A face that I still see.





Monoscapes: Death of a National icon

16 04 2013

6.56 pm on 8 February 2011. Descending storm clouds cast a pall of gloom over the last pieces standing of the National Stadium, the demolition of which was completed in the same month. Built at Kallang Park on a reclaimed plot of land which had once been used for Singapore’s first international civil airport, the stadium which was to become a National icon was completed in 1973. It was the year Singapore hosted its very first major international mass sporting event, the 7th South-East Asian Peninsula (SEAP) Games. The stadium also went on to be used as a home ground for the widely supported Singapore football team in the Malaysia Cup competition, packing as many as 70,000 spectators (its capacity was to later be capped at 55,000) and acquiring a fearsome reputation as the home of the “Kallang Roar”.

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Going the way of several other National icons from a less extravagant era in our history, its place will be taken by a new stadium which is being built as part of the new Singapore Sports Hub. The new stadium is scheduled to be completed in 2014.





Monoscapes: Moonlight on the Straits

10 04 2013

Moonlight on the Straits of Johor, on a night of the full moon, as seen from Pulau Ubin. Pulau Ubin is a granite island off the north-east Singapore, which in its natural state was dominated by mangrove swamps, much of which were cleared at the end of the 19th century to allow farming, plantation and quarrying activities to be carried out on the island. Described as Singapore’s “last wilderness”, it is today better know as an escape from the highly urbanised main island of Singapore. It is also known for its Outward Bound School and for the wetland reserve at Chek Jawa on its south-eastern tip.

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It was back in the 1980s that I first set foot on the island, joining friends on several overnight excursions around the island. Then, it played host to villages by the sea and fish farms, and its coastline was marked by boats and wooden jetties. Most have since disappeared, with just a small cluster of village houses close to where the jetty at which bumboats from the main island call at. The island, for which has been identified as a reserve for possible future housing development, was also where former a political detainee, Mr Lee Tee Tong was confined to after his release in February 1980. Lee was a former Barisan Socialis Assemblyman who was arrested during a crackdown on left-wing trade union activists under Operation Pechah in October 1963. In June 1978, some 131 Vietnamese Boat People, refugees who made the perilous escape from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon by boat up to the end of the 1970s, landed on the island. The island together with the neighbouring military training island of Pulau Tekong, is possibly the last habitat for the critically endangered Leopard Cat in Singapore.





Monoscapes: Mount Balwang

8 04 2013

The landscape at the top of Mount Balwang, Yongpyong, South Korea in winter. The peak at 1458 metres above sea level is accessible via cable-car from Yongpyong. The mountain is part of the Baekdudaegan mountain range which runs down almost the length of the Korean Peninsula.

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Monoscapes: Kampong Wak Hassan beach

2 04 2013

What is possibly one of the last natural accessible stretches of sand along the coastline of the island of Singapore lies along the northern shoreline off Sembawang Park, stretching to the area off the former coastal villages of Kampong Wak Hassan and Kampong Tengah. Except for the attempt to “renew” the area around Sembawang Park which will result in it losing much of its previous charm, the shoreline in the area is one that is relatively untouched. Left in an almost natural state, the beach is one rich in character and in which the memories of a world that has ceased to exist can still be found. With property developments gaining pace in the area, it probably will not be long before the memories provided by the old but falling seawall and the natural beach, are paved over in the same way much of our previously beautiful coastline has.  Until then, it is one of the few places close to a world I would otherwise find hard to remember, in which I can find a rare escape from the concretised world that Singapore has too quickly become.

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About the former Kampong Wak Hassan:

The former village (kampong or kampung as it is spelt today), was one of several coastal villages that were found just to the east of Sembawang Road and the former British Naval Base, running along the coastline to Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang. While the coastline played host to the nomadic inhabitants of the Straits of Johor, the Orang Laut, specifically the Orang Seletar, the kampong, stands as the oldest of the settlements in the stretch.

The village came to the location after work to build the huge naval base which ran along the northern coast from what is today Sembawang Road west to to the Causewayin the late 1920s displaced the the original Kampong Wak Hassan which grew from a coconut grove founded by Wak Hassan bin Ali at the original mouth of Sungei Sembawang (the area just west of what is today Sembawang Shipyard) in the 1914 (being granted rights by the Straits Settlements’ Commissioner of Lands to the use of the land stretching from the mouth of the river to Westhill Estate – which became Chong Pang Village).

While the base did provide residents of the village with employment opportunities, most of the villagers who may have originally been employed in rubber plantations which once occupied the lands around the coast and in the coconut groves, were involved in fishing.

The village besides being the oldest in the area, was also the longest lasting. While most of the inhabitants of the other villages were resettled at the end of the 1980s, the last inhabitants of Kampong Wak Hassan only moved out as recently as in 1998.


Previous posts related to Kampong Wak Hassan and the greater Sembawang area:

A place to greet the new day:






Monoscapes: Kallang Basin

24 03 2013

More than a quarter of a century has passed since the ten-year effort to clean the Kallang Basin up was completed in 1987. Now part of body of freshwater cut-off by land reclaimed at Tanjong Rhu and Marina South, and the Marina Barrage, it is now hard to imagine a time when the waters of the Kallang Basin,  were dirty, murky and exuded a stench that would be hard not to take notice of. Fed by the Rochor, Geylang and Kallang Rivers, the waters before the cleanup were littered not just by the many boats that were anchored in the basin, but also by what the numerous slums, boatyards, sawmills, pig and poultry farms that had once populated the areas upriver deposited. The sight of carcasses of dead animals floating in the waters was not an uncommon sight. Today, as the area is being transformed, it is not the trading boats we see, but recreational boats which perhaps serve as a last reminder of what may not have been so distant a past.

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Previous posts related to Kallang Basin: