“Lenin’s Tomb” at Raffles Place

17 01 2020

Constructed in an effort to beautify the city, the “underground” car park topped with a roof garden that came to define the Raffles Place of post-independent Singapore, came in for some criticism as it was nearing completion. Likened to Lenin’s Mausoleum, its critics even went so far as to suggest that it be used for the repose of Singapore’s distinguished citizens. Despite the early reservations, Raffles Place Garden – as it was christened, was a quite a joy to behold. With its floral clock, fountain and a backdrop provided by Raffles Place’s characterful buildings, the garden became what could be thought of as the 1960s equivalent of an instagram-worthy spot.

Christmas 1966 on the roof garden at Raffles Place, with Robinson’s behind.

That Raffles Place was certainly a place I connected with.  My visits there usually coincided with the preparations for the year-end season of giving, which invariably led to Robinsons Department Store’s quite memorable toy department. Large and well stocked, the department was every child’s dream. I looked forward to visiting each year, even if that meant having to catch sight of Father Christmas, whom I was terrified of. Out of Robinson’s famous Christmas lucky dip, I once pulled out an orange coloured battery-operated submarine. It was a prized toy, even if I had to contend with using it once every three months during our seaside holidays at Mata Ikan – in the holiday bungalow’s bathtub!

The promise of good food was another thing to look forward to when visiting Raffles Place. Makan time would on a special occasion, lead me to the Honeyland Milk Bar at Battery Road, which was just around the square’s northeast corner. There was always a sense of anticipation that I got as the parting of the café’s heavy doors delivered a cold rush of Worcestershire sauce scented air. The café’s chicken pies were to die for. I enjoyed the pies with a dash of tomato ketchup – which I never could quite manage to cajole out from the sauce bottle without some help.

Raffles Place’s little “corners”, which included Change Alley, added much to area’s unique charm. “Chin Charlie” to me and many non-English speakers like my maternal grandmother, it was a fascinating place to wander through and one of the places that made the Singapore of the 1960s, Singapore. The famous alley, which featured in films and in a BBC newsreel,  seemed to be always be full of life and for a while, laughter – emanating from numerous laughing bags being set off in the alley by its many toy vendors as a form of advertisement. Popular at the end of the 1960s, the toys took the form of tiny drawstring bags that contained sound boxes.

The Raffles Place end of Change Alley, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

Little did I know it as a young child, but the laughter, along with the Raffles Place that I knew and loved would soon to see lasting change. A tragic fire in November 1972, which resulted in the loss of nine lives, also saw to Robinsons losing its iconic Raffles Chambers home it had occupied since 1941. The subsequent move – of Robinson’s to Specialists Centre in Orchard Road – also severed the store’s connection with the square, which could be traced back to 1858.

Raffles Chambers – before Robinson’s moved in.

By the time of the fire, the area had in fact already been in the cusp of change. At the glorious waterfront – Raffles Place “backyard”, the grand old turret-topped 1923 built Ocean Building had come down in 1970 to make way for a towering third. The 1923 Ocean – the second to stand on the site – was the forerunner of a building frenzy that would shape Singapore’s bund at Collyer Quay, which by the 1930s possessed a quality that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment. The second Ocean’s demise set a reversal of the process in motion. Two more of the waterfront’s grand 1920s edifices erected a year after the Ocean, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and Maritime (ex-Union Insurance) Building, would also make way for the new.

John Little’s Building early in 1946 – when it was used temporarily as the Shackle Club [source: Lizzie Ellis on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)].

On the square, one of its famous landmarks – John Little’s Building – was sold in 1973. This would lead to Raffles Tower (now Singapore Land Tower) being put up in its place. Incidentally, Raffles Tower when it was still under construction,  was the scene of a dramatic aerial helicopter rescue – the first in Singapore’s history. The rescue on 21 October 1980 came at a time when 19 out of tower’s intended 48 floors were completed. A fire broke out on the 18th floor, which left a crane operator stranded on a tower crane perched on the top of the uncompleted building some 60 metres above ground. The daring rescue effort saw the operator plucked from the crane’s boom to safety by the crew of a RSAF Bell 212 helicopter .

Singapore’s first helicopter aerial rescue was over Raffles Place on 21 October 1980.

Raffles Place would also lose its car park and roof garden not so long after this incident. A well-loved feature by that time, the garden’s lifespan fell short of the “many, many decades” that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had predicted it would last when he opened it in November 1965. The construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system just two decades later, meant that the structure and its garden, went the way of Raffles Place’s older icons in mid-1984.

Raffles Place – still with its garden – in the late 1970s. The former Mercantile Bank can be seen at the end of the square.

The building of the MRT also took out the other landmarks that could be identified with old Raffles Place. The former Mercantile Bank (built 1929) was one. The building, which marked the square’s southern end, had been purchased by Chartered Bank to house its Singapore headquarters while its 6 Battery Road HQ at the square’s opposite end, was being rebuilt. Chartered Bank’s new premises at 6 Battery Road, which was put up at the start of the 1980s incorporated a provision for the MRT to be built at a time when the question of whether the MRT should be built was still being deliberated.

Over a CBD in transition at the end of the 1970s. Renewal, redevelopment and reclamation would change the face of a part of Singapore that at the point of independence, had a certain old world charm (photo source: Panoramio).

Raffles Place today, wears a look of modernity reflective of Singapore’s impressive progress since the car park and its roof garden was unveiled. Cold as it may have become enclosed by the wall of towering symbols of success, Lenin’s tomb it is not nor a place of repose for the distinguished – other than the distinguished past. There are the reminders of the square that was replaced if one looks hard enough – found in the names that are retained and in some of the new structures that have come to define the new Raffles Place.


 

Raffles Place over the years

 

 

Raffles Place stands on the site of a hill that was levelled in 1822 to provide filler for the reclamation in way of the south bank of the Singapore River that provided the grounds for Boat Quay.

 

Raffles Place in the late 1800s. The garden seen in this G. R. Lambert print was one of Commercial Square’s early features, which was laid out, planted with trees and enclosed by a low wall and a wooden fence in the mid-1830s. The marble drinking water fountain seen in the photograph was the one presented by John Gemmill in 1864. The donation involved more than just the fountain as it required the laying of pipes from Mr Gemmill’s property at Mount Erskine to Raffles Place. The fountain originally had metal cups chained to it. The fountain, which now stands outside the National Museum of Singapore, found its way to Empress Place, before being moved to the museum in the 1970s.

 

Gemmill’s fountain – at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

Another G R Lambert print from the late 1800s. Originally Commercial Square, it was named Raffles Place by the Municipal Commission in 1858.

 

By the 1900s Raffles Place was well developed into a commercial and banking centre. This postcard view of Raffles Place in the 1930s shows several banking institutions established around in the square such as (from left to right): Mercantile Bank of India, Banque de l’Indochine (French Bank) and Yokohama Specie Bank (YS Bank in Meyer Chambers).

 

Preparations for war, 1941. A machine gun pillbox seen in front of a John Little’s Building fitted with brick barricades.

 

Air raid wardens are dousing an incendiary bomb in Raffles Place in 1941 as part of a regular weekly mass demonstration to make Singaporean’s bomb conscious and informed (source: Library of Congress – no known copyright restrictions).

A bomb damaged Raffles Place following the first Japanese air raid on Singapore on 8 Dec 1941.

 

Raffles Place in the 1950s, by which time stores such as John Little – established in the 1840s and Robinson’s, founded in the 1850s, were already very well established and were household names.

 

Plans for a garden at Raffles Place were first announced in Nov 1963 during a State Government policy address made by Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak to the Legislative Assembly – the first with Singapore a State in Malaysia and the last ever. Work commenced on what was to be a 150 car capacity underground car park topped by a roof garden in July 1964. By the time LKY opened the carpark and roof garden in Nov 1965, Singapore was an independent country. LKY expressed his disappointment that the car park had to be elevated a metre above the ground for ventilation and access and observed that some had likened one end of the structure to Lenin’s tomb. He also noted that there were also suggestions that “we might perhaps repose the precious remains of some of our more distinguished citizens in one end of this square”.

 

Mr David Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966, which made its rounds around the internet in 2012. The photograph shows the roof garden and looks towards the northern end of the square with the Chartered Bank Chambers on Battery Road at the far end (source: David Ayres on Flickr).

 

Another northward view – this one in 1969 courtesy of Mr Kim Hocker (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The five-foot-way along John Little’s Building in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Trishaw riders outside Oriental Emporium at Raffles Place in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

A view of the car park from street level with a staircase to the roof garden (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The Malacca Street end of the car park and its location today.

A view towards the north end with MRT construction work, 1987 (National Archives of Singapore).

 

A northward view today. The John Little’s Building is replicated on the main entrances to the MRT.

 

A southward view of Raffles Place today.

 

The Singapore Land tower (R) – where the rescue of the crane operator took place in 1980.

 

One Raffles Place – which occupies the site of Robinson’s and Meyer Chambers.


 





Parting glances: Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as it will never again be

25 08 2016

The time has come to say goodbye, albeit a temporary one, to another old friend. The former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station is set to be closed come the new year so that the extension of the Circle Line MRT and the construction of a MRT station can go on beneath it. If all goes well, it will only be reopened in 2025, by which time it will have a feel that will be very different  that which has existed at the station through the grand art-deco inspired station’s 84 year history.

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The famous façade of the station features four triumphal figures sculptured by Angelo Vannetti of the Raoul Bigazzi Studios in Florence that represent the then four pillars of the Malayan economy.

The former station holds the memories of many. The railway’s mostly Malaysian staff still speak fondly of their days in what has to be one of the grander stations to serve along the Malayan railway. There also are the memories of the numerous passengers who passed through its especially grand vaulted main hall; many depended on the railway not just for forays across the causeway, but also as a well used link for the thousands who commuted from the homes in southern Johor to Singapore for their work and even to attend school.

Murals decorate the main hall. The hall also features two booths made of teak wood that have since been painted over.

Murals decorate the main hall. The hall also features two booths made of teak wood that have since been painted over.

A view of the main hall.

A view of the main hall without the clutter of the last days.

As part of the Request for Proposals (RFP) to develop a concept plan for the Rail Corridor, which was returned to Singapore on 1 July 2011, a concept design was sought for the adaptive reuse of the former station for an interim period of 20 years. During this period, the nearby port facility the station had been positioned to serve, will make a westward move, following which plans for the Greater Southern Waterfront, into which the former station will be incorporated, will be firmed up.

The end of the line. This year is the last year we get to take in this perspective. It is one that has greeted three generations of travellers coming by train to Singapore for some 79 years before the closure of the railway at the end of June 2011.

The end of the line. This year is the last year we get to take in this perspective. It is one that has greeted three generations of travellers coming by train to Singapore for some 79 years before the closure of the railway at the end of June 2011.

The completion of the Circle Line also dovetails into this and the tunnels for the line will run directly under the station to minimise the potential for uneven ground settlement and the risk of damage to the precious structure of the National Monument. A MRT station, Cantonment Station (its working name), is also being built under a part of the station’s platforms. For this, sections of the platforms, which had apparently been assembled in a modular manner, will be removed and stored to allow excavation work to be carried out for the MRT stations’s construction. The intention will be to reinstate the removed platform sections and refurbish them after the work for the MRT station is completed.

Gaps in the station's platforms, said to be amongst the longest in the Malayan Railway's stations, point to where the modular sections come together.

Gaps in the station’s platforms, said to be amongst the longest in the Malayan Railway’s stations, point to where the modular sections come together.

One of the things that is apparently being looked at by the winning team for the RFP’s adaptive reuse of the former station, is how, besides the use of the station as a gateway into the Rail Corridor as a community space, is the integration of the MRT station under its platforms into it. This may see an additional MRT station entrance between the platforms that will see traffic of passengers of the new train line over the platforms and through the former station’s main building.

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An impression of the MRT station’s entrance between the platforms produced by MKPL. New platforms are shown in this impression as it was initially thought that the sections of the platforms in way of the MRT station would have to be demolished to allow excavation work.

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The reverse view of the proposed MRT station’s entrance between the platforms. A canopy over it will be one of the interventions that will be necessary (MKPL).

While this may necessitate several interventions that will alter the feel the former station once provided, it will be a rather meaningful outcome for the former railway station that in the words of the winning team MKPL Architects Pte Ltd and Turenscape International Ltd, will have “the former station, connecting Singapore’s past, present and future”. Another thing being looked at is the beautifying of the space fronting the station currently used as a car park as a “Station Green” – a landscaped garden intended to allow a better appreciation of the station’s grand façade.

MKPL/Turenscape proposes to replace the car park, currently in front of the former station, with a landscaped garden.

MKPL/Turenscape proposes to replace the car park, currently in front of the former station, with a landscaped garden.

For those who want to take a last look at the former station before it closes and is forever altered, only three opportunities possibly remain. These coincide with the anticipated open houses that will be held over the year’s three remaining public holidays. The last will be Christmas Day, a widely commemorated holiday that for the members of one of the larger religious communities here in Singapore, is one of promise. Built with a promise that could never be fulfilled, the grand old station will close after Christmas Day, with a new promise for its future.

The platforms, were of a length to accommodate the longest mail trains.

The length of the platforms, said to be among the longest in the FMSR’s stations, were to accommodate the longest mail trains.

A look up what in the station's last days, was the departure platform.

A look up what in the station’s last days, was the departure platform.

Immigration counters last used by Malaysian immigration officers. These will surely be removed.

Immigration counters on the departure platform last used by Malaysian immigration officers. These will surely be removed.

One of two hydraulic stops at the

One of two hydraulic stops at the end of the tracks – one was returned following the handover of the station.

Memories of teh tarik.

Memories of teh tarik.

Rooms that were used by logistics companies at the former station - these possibly will be converted for use by F&B or retail outlets in the future.

Rooms that were used by freight forwarders at the former station – these possibly will be converted for use by F&B or retail outlets in the future.

Another look into a freight forwarders' storeroom.

Another look into a freight forwarders’ storeroom.

A booth. Last used by the auxiliary police at the station, the booth had in its early days, been used by the convenience shop that operated at the station.

A booth. Last used by the auxiliary police at the station, the booth had in its early days, been used by the convenience shop that operated at the station.

The inside of the former ticketing booth.

The inside of the former ticketing booth.

Beautiful soft light illuminates some of the rooms along the main hall.

Beautiful soft light illuminates some of the rooms along the main hall.

A part of the platforms where one could watch the world go slowly by over a cup of teh tarik in the station's last days.

A part of the platforms where one could watch the world go slowly by over a cup of teh tarik in the station’s last days.

Another view of the main hall. There are lots of stories related to the haunting of the third level (section under the letters FMSR at the far end), used previously by the Station Hotel.

Another view of the main hall. There are lots of stories related to the haunting of the third level (section under the letters FMSR at the far end), used previously by the Station Hotel.

The main hall of the station. Part of the vaulted ceiling and batik-style mosaic panels can be seen.

The clutter of the main hall in the station’s last days.

The crowd at Tanjong Pagar late on 30 June 2011 to witness the departure of the last train.

The crowd witnessing Tanjong Pagar’s last moments as a station late on 30 June 2011.

Last journeys.

A final glance at the main hall.

A final glance at the main hall.


A look back at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

Gazetted as a National Monument in its final days as the southern terminal of the Malayan Raliway, the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was built in 1932 as a centrepiece that would underline Singapore’s growing importance as an economic centre in the British Far East. Its position was carefully considered for its envisaged role as a gateway from the southernmost point in continental Asia to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Sir Cecil Clementi the Governor of Singapore, in his address at the station’s opening on 2 May 1932, made the observation that it was “a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic”, adding that it was “where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”.

It was a promise that was not to be fulfilled. Sir Cecil could not have predicted that the railway’s importance as a means of transportation in the Malayan peninsula would diminish and just a little over 79 years since the 5.1.5 pm arrival of the first train from Bukit Panjang Station, the whistle of the last train to depart was heard late into the night of 30 June 2011. An agreement between the governments of Singapore and Malaysia (who through the administration of the railway, also owned the station and the land on which the railway operated through Ordinance 22 of 1918 or the Singapore Railway Transfer Ordinance 1918), which had taken two decades to sort out, saw to the move of the railway’s terminal to Woodlands and with that the transfer ownership  the station and much of the railway land on the island to the Singapore government on 1 July 2011.

Since its closure, the station fell into disuse with the odd event held in the space, and in more recent times, a series of open houses held during public holidays. The location of the former station in what will become the Greater Southern Waterfront has put permanent plans for it on hold. A concept plan for an interim use is however being developed as part of the Rail Corridor RFP by a team led by MKPL Architects and landscape designers Turenscape International. An MRT station for the final stretch of the Circle Line is also being constructed under a section of the platforms, together with the line being run under the station. The work being carried out means that the former station closed to the public for a substantial period of time with the completion of the MRT scheduled for 2025.

The station found use after its closure as a temporary event space.

The station found use after its closure as an event space.

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The rush by the staff at the station to leave on the last train at the end of the final day of operations.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

A final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

A few former food stall operators having a last breakfast on 30 June 2011.

A last breakfast on 30 June 2011.

A reflection on the convenience store and the main hall in the last days.

The hardworking last Station Master at Tanjong Pagar - En. Ayub.

The very hardworking last Station Master at the station, En. Ayub.

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The arrival platform with its meal time crowd.

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Coming home.

Returning home, one of the first things that would greet you (post mid 1998) as you walked to the end of the platform was the barrier before you got into the public area. Prior to the move of the SIngapore CIQ, you would first have to pass through Singapore Immigration, Customs and a narrow passage through a fenced area where K9 unit dogs would sniff passengers for smuggled narcotics.

The welcome. One of the first things that would greet passengers after mid 1998 when the Singapore CIQ was relocated to Woodlands. Prior to the move, it would have been necessary to pass through Singapore Immigration, Customs and a narrow fenced passageway where dogs (behind the fence) would sniff passengers for narcotics.

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The wait for a loved one.

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Watching the world go slowly by over a cup of teh tarik.

Tickets would be checked and punched at the departure gate.

The departure gate.

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Leaving on the 8am.

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The walk to Spooner Road.

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Platform end.

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Saying goodbye.

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A welcome home.

A very helpful ticketing clerk, En. Azmi, who was posted to the station on 1st July 1990. He completed a full 21 years at the station when it ceased operations on 30th June 2011.

The very friendly En. Azmi. He was posted to the station on 1st July 1990 and completed a full 21 years of service at the station when it ceased operations on 30th June 2011.

Mr Mahmoodul Hasan who ran the two canteens in the station before its closure.

Mr Mahmoodul Hasan, the M. Hasan in the name of the station’s makan place. He ran the station’s two canteens before its closure.

And last of all one that should not be forgotten - one of the many cats the station was home to.

Catwalk – one of the many cats the station played host to.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

A view down the platform.

The ticket counter in quieter days - well before the madness of the last two months descended on the station.

The ticketing counter.

Especially when the ticketing computer is down - that in my experience often happened.

An all too common occurrence at the ticketing counter.

A train at the platform.

The last Eastern and Oriental Express train to depart.

Some of those who assisted him at the drinks counter and the popular Ramly Burger stand.

The Ramly Burger stand. Food was one of the draws of the station.

By 12.45 pm, the Briyani had been sold out, brining to an end a chapter for Ali Nacha at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The day the music died. 12.45 pm on 24 June 2011, when the last plate of Briyani from the popular Ali Nacha stall at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was served.

The arrival.

The arrival.

The festive crowd - when queues formed for tickets in the lead up to Chinese New Year. Many with roots in Malaysian would return by train to their home towns for the important holiday (photo source: National Archives online)

The festive crowd – when queues formed for tickets in the lead up to Chinese New Year. Many with roots in Malaysian would return by train to their home towns for the important holiday (photo source: National Archives online).

The main vaulted hall of the station in its early days. An impressive integration of public

The main hall of the station in its early days. The station was built in 1932 to serve as a gateway to the oceans, through the wharves at Tanjong Pagar.  Its opening on 2 May 1932 was marked by the 5.15 pm arrival of a train from Bukit Panjang. The first the public saw of it however, was several months prior to this, when it was used for a Manufacturer’s Exhibition in January 1932.






Closing the Circle

29 10 2015

One of the things the announcement identifying the sites of the Circle Line Stage 6 stations that will not go unnoticed is that parts of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s platforms will have to be removed for the construction of Cantonment Station. This may come as a surprise to many as the former station, at which operations ceased on 30 June 2011, was gazetted as a National Monument in April of that same year. Currently unoccupied, it is the subject of a concept plan being developed under the Rail Corridor RFP, part of which seeks to identify a use in the interim prior to the development of the future Greater Southern Waterfront.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

The platforms of the former railway station are historically significant. They are amongst the longest found along the Malayan Railway’s lines, having been dimensioned to accommodate the longest mail trains. The platforms however, at least for the stretch that will be affected and based on the April 2011 gazette that accords the former railway station with National Monument status, have not been protected as part of the monument.

An extract of the May 2011 gazette showing the part of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station designated as a National Monument.

An extract of the Apr 2011 gazette showing the part of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station protected as a National Monument.

The end of the former station's platforms seen after its closure.

The end of the former station’s platforms seen after its closure.

Considerations made in selecting the site of Cantonment Station (its working name) include the need to protect the National Monument from damage as well as the presence of existing structures in the vicinity such as the Keppel Viaduct to the immediate south and HDB flats to the immediate north. Construction would involve tunneling work deep under the former railway station and the excavation of part of the area where the platforms are to construct the station.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

The excavation work in way of the future MRT station will see sections of the platforms removed. It does seem that the intention is to dismantle the parts of the affected parts of the platforms, which were built in a modular manner, and restore and reinstate them once construction is complete. Other options that are being been considered include demolishing the platforms altogether and either reconstructing them in the same style or in a style that is in keeping with the former station’s intended use.

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Work is scheduled to commence in 2017. As this will only be completed in 2025, it does mean that we will not get to see the platforms on which many memories have been made, for close to a decade.

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Thinking about it, it does perhaps make perfect sense to have the new MRT station integrated into the former railway station, whatever its intended reuse in the future. While this may deviate from what had been intended in building the grand old dame, modelled some say after Helsinki Central to serve as the gateway to the oceans, it would be in keeping with its intended use as a transportation hub and serve as a fitting reminder of what once was.

Further information on Circle Line 6 can be found in the joint LTA / SLA Press Release found here.


More of the platforms in forgotten times

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A walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: Wandering along the new railway and rediscovering the old

20 10 2010

During much of a rain and lightning interrupted eight kilometre walk with friends from the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road, I was surprised to discover that, despite the high-rises on the horizon and the other signs of modernity that have replaced what was a rural feel of much of Singapore beyond the city limits, I was able to immerse myself in a countryside where time seems to have forgotten. The walk, motivated by the sense of nostalgia for the old railway line which was prompted by the impending shift of the KTM station to Woodlands, allowed us to have a glimpse perhaps of a slice of Singapore that would be forgotten very soon after the last of the trains of the old railway which has been with us since 1903, makes a final stop at Tanjong Pagar sometime before the first of July next year.

Starting point of the walk - the Phoenix LRT Station in the new Singapore that has replaced the countryside of the old.

The walk took us through many of the areas that I have mentioned in another nostalgia related post on the railway, “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar: The Station at Bukit Timah” (also on asia! as “Keeping Track of Time”), allowing me and several others a last look at the stretch of line that is characterised by the two black steel truss bridges that crosses Bukit Timah Road. For me, it was also a chance to revisit the area which I had become familiar with as a young child, and as a consequence, my childhood, having first been acquainted with it staring out of the opened window of my father’s Austin 1100 on the many road trips made through the area.

How the area might have once appeared to me ... a scene from the backseat of a car further south along Upper Bukit Timah Road (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The same general area as it looks today.

The first stop we made, having met at Phoenix LRT station, was the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road. This provided a wonderful opportunity for me to do what as a child I always enjoyed – that is catching the train traversing what must certainly be the last major level crossing in Singapore, a crossing that is today, made across the six lanes of Choa Chu Kang Road. Somehow, watching the trains running across at road level, just in the shadow of a modern elevated urban railway line, the Bukit Panjang Light Rail Transit (LRT) system, seemed surreal … as was the scene around the level crossing. Looking up the tracks on the north bound side of the crossing, it looked as if the tracks were taking a path to an abyss – the abyss being a plot of land that I had once been familiar with from the many occasions that I had walked through it as a shortcut to Woodlands Road from one of the camps I had been at during my National Service – Stagmont Camp. I had on many occasions as well been on training exercises during my stint at the camp which involved walking up and down the areas around the tracks – once leaving a rifle behind in the dark, which I was fortunate enough to find with the help of my army mates, only having discovered my carelessness a few kilometres up the tracks.

The northbound track into the "abyss" that I once was familiar with from my days in National Service.

On the other side of the crossing, a little hut that serves as the control station for the crossing stands – with a little yellow outhouse behind it, as well as a village like house that was perhaps a common sight in the area once, that served as the quarters of the railway staff manning the crossing. The area of the control hut is probably close to the site of Bukit Panjang Station, one of the stations on the original Singapore to Kranji Railway line. Bukit Panjang Station was also one of the main stops along the line after the 1932 Railway Deviation which gave us the grand station at Tanjong Pagar and the two black truss bridges we see in the area. I am not sure when the station stopped functioning or was demolished – but perhaps like the Phoenix that the nearby Phoenix Estate and LRT station is named after, a new Bukit Panjang Station is slowly – but surely, rising out of its ashes nearby – part of the new railway line – the Downtown MRT line, which for a large part, will run parallel to the original railway line which ran from Kranji down via Newton to the original terminal at Tank Road.

The KTM control hut at on the other side of the level crossing.

A scene reminiscent perhaps of the countryside of old.

The KTM staff was kind enough to allow the use of the outhouse ....

The new railway is being built to replace the old ... the Downtown Line is being constructed parallel to the old railway line.

Deciding that it was too dangerous to walk physically along the tracks, not just because of the dangers of walking along or close to the railway track, but also in anticipation of the fury that, the god of thunder, Thor, seemed to want to unleash, we made our southward trek first along Upper Bukit Timah Road. This took us past the Murugan Hill Temple, a relatively recent addition to the area, having moved to its current location in 1992 from its original home in Sungei Tengah where it could trace its history back to a shrine that was put up in 1962. In getting there, we had also walked past a structure that is reminiscent of the very first overhead bridges in Singapore – constructed of steel with open sides – a temporary overhead bridge erected across Upper Bukit Timah Road that has perhaps been recycled from a decommissioned first or second generation overhead bridge.

An overhead bridge reminiscent of the first overhead bridges in Singapore.

The new Murugan Hill Temple which shifted to the Bukit Panjang area from its original home in Sungei Tengah in 1992.

Continuing further south, we had a quick look at the second level crossing in the area – a smaller one with a delightful old wooden gate, and some of the abandoned buildings around before the sheets of rain that accompanied Thor’s fury came down forcing us to take what little shelter the KTM buildings in the area had offered. After a while, with the rain not showing any signs of abating, we decided to cross the road to wait the rain out at a coffee shop and it was probably an hour before we were able to continue with our walk.

A scene from the "countryside" enroute to the level crossing at Gombak Drive.

Parts of Upper Bukit Timah Road still have that old world feel.

More of the old world feel ...

 


The railway building near the level crossing at Gombak Drive where we took shelter from the storm.

Looking north from the level crossing at Gombak Drive.

Further along the route, we walked past the Boys Town complex … this was the destination that, as boys growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, many feared they would end up in for misbehaving – or so many of our parents then had us believe. It was probably a huge misconception that existed then that Boys Town was a correctional facility and a home for delinquent boys – although it did actually house a boys home, as well as a vocational school which did also take in troubled boys as well as orphans, with a view to providing a home as well as an education. The home and vocational school was started in 1948 by the Gabrielite Brothers, a Catholic Missionary group, as the St. Joseph’s Trade School before being renamed as “Boys Town”.

The once feared Boys Town complex ...

Further along the way, we decided to explore the Stations of the Cross at St. Joseph’s Church – probably one of the last remaining village Catholic churches in Singapore – with a cemetery in its yard. The cemetery had once been a shortcut for me – getting from the church to a friend’s house up Chestnut Drive. Back then, the church side of Chestnut Drive had been lined with single storey wooden houses that were rented from the church who owned much of the land around Chestnut Drive. What is unique about the Stations of the Cross is that this is the only Catholic church in Singapore where the stations are located outside the church. The church building in itself is also rather unique – featuring a 33 metre tall pagoda like roof structure that rises above the area rather prominently. The building was completed in 1964 and consecrated by the then Archibishop of Malacca-Singapore, Michael Olcomendy on August 30, 1964, and built to cater for the growing congregation on the site of a previous building that had been built some 110 years prior to that.

The St. Joseph's Church building built in 1964 on Upper Bukit Timah Road features a pagoda style roof that rises some 33 metres.

The original St. Joseph's Church, built 110 years before the structure we see today (source: St. Joseph's Church website http://www.stjoseph-bt.org.sg/St_Joseph_Website/About_Us.html).

The outdoor Stations of the Cross - unique to St. Joseph's Church in Singapore.

Chestnut Drive as it appears today. It used to be lined with houses that were rented from the church.

There are probably not many who know this, but Chestnut Drive was where a temporary Magistrate’s Court was set up in 1967 in the newly built school building that became the Chestnut Drive School. The next part of the walk continued southwards towards the area where the first of the two black truss bridges in the area, as well as the girder bridge that straddles Hillview Road are … which I will continue with in another post.