The machine gun pillbox café at Changi Beach

10 11 2017

How I miss my outings as a child to Changi Beach. High tides occurring on a Sunday morning often meant a trip to the beach for a dip. Trips to Changi Beach, which meant a long but scenic drive in days when the word “expressway” did not feature on a Singaporean driver’s vocabulary, were always looked to with much excitement and were not without preparation.

Changi Beach, 1965

A day at  Changi Beach, 1965.

Mum would often prepare a delicious tiffin. Mee goreng or chicken curry served with local versions of the French baguette were my favourites. Dad would ask to have his thermos filled with kopi-o from the nearby kopitiam. Straw hats and mats, tiny pails and spades for sand play, inflatable floats, my grandma, my sis and me could then be packed into the trusty Austin 1100 for the drive – part of which featured the seemingly never-ending and still very rural Tampines Road.

Picnics out of the Car Boot, Changi Beach, late 1960s.

Changi Beach had then a very different feel. It was uninterrupted for miles, running from the spit at the mouth of Changi Creek to the cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar. Ketapang (sea-almond), acacia, sea apple, coconut, and casuarina trees lined the beach and its popular stretches were lined with sampans for hire, and within sight of that, inner truck tire tubes for use as floats and deck chairs were displayed – also for hire.

Under an acacia tree, Changi Beach, early 1970s.

Sampans for hire (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

One of the things also associated with the beach that I was recently reminded of from a posting of photographs by Mrs Lies Strijker-Klaij, were the beach-side cafes. Housed in wooden shacks – much like those now found in some beaches in the region – they served the delicious Malay fare and were popular with the beach crowd as were the mobile food vendors who made an appearance. The fish and chips van was a regular, as were several bell-ringing ice-cream vendors and the Indian men balancing delicious a tray of vadai or a rack of kacang putih.

The vadai vendor with a tray balanced on his head. The wooden base opened up as a folding support (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

A vadai vendor and a beach-side café similar to the ones I remember at Changi Beach in the background (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

Thinking about all that also reminds me of the machine gun pillboxes that lined the beach in my earlier years. Built to fend off would be invaders, they decorated the southward facing coastline. Many were filled with rotting matter and stank to high-heaven. There was also a pillbox along the beach that was a café operated out of. I don’t quite remember it but I recall my parents making reference to it as “chipot”. I never quite figured its name out, that is until quite recently. My dad explained that it was a name parents used for the want of a better name,  derived from how the Chinese lady who ran the café would repeated an order for a pot of tea, “chi pot” – a combination of the colloquial Hokkien word for one and the English pot!

A Pillbox at Changi Beach.

A similar pillbox at Mata Ikan in the 1970s.

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A picture from the past

6 08 2013

Looking through old photographs of what perhaps was a lost decade for me, the 1980s, I stumbled upon a rare one of Changi Beach, taken some time in 1987. The beach, one on which I have had many experiences of going back to the late 1960s, had by that time already lost its popularity as a place for a family outing – missing were the beach side cafes, the wooden sampans, deck chairs and rubber tubes from a time when you could drive right up to the edge of the beach and find a shady spot under a ketapang tree to park your car under.

JeromeChangiBeach 1987s

The coarse sand beach in the 1980s was one abandoned by many in Singapore for the man-made beach lining the reclaimed land at East Coast Park. It is perhaps beyond the foreshore that does make the photograph interesting. Along the horizon two kelongs, structures erected to harvest fish from the sea, can be seen. The structures which once dominated the seascape off much of Singapore, are now a rare sight.

Knobbly sea stars.

Knobbly sea stars seen at Pulau Semakau – once a common sight on the seabed off Changi Beach at low tide.

The kelongs remind me of happier times past, when wading out to them at low tide was possible, across knee deep water over a seabed of sea grass meadows abundant with sea life.  It was on the many walks my parents took me on in the late 1960s and 1970s that I was to catch my first glimpse of knobby sea stars, fiddler crabs, gong-gong and sea cucumber – marine creatures that are rarely seen in our waters these days (we do also have to head to our offshore islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Semakau to see them).

The shallow waters during low tide off Changi Beach provided hours of endless fun with the creatures that lived amongst the sea grass. A fiddler crab is seen here.

A fiddler crab seen at Chek Jawa off Pulau Ubin.

Sea cucumber.

Sea cucumber – also once a common sight off Changi Beach.

There are also several less than happy memories I can find in the photograph. Scanning the horizon, a glimpse of Pulau Tekong is seen on the right. It just west of this spot where I would board a Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) from the beach as a National Service recruit for a dreaded 40 minute ride on an open deck to the island. The RPLs were the means by which personnel were ferried to and from the two Basic Military Training camps on Pulau Tekong in those days. Having to beach also meant the RPLs could only come in at high tide – which translated into shortened weekends for us as when we could get back and had to go back in, was very much determined by the time when the tide was high. That meant we would sometimes get out only in the afternoon, only to have to get back to the beach on the morning of the following day. It is a lot easier these days, recruits leave from and arrive at a purpose built ferry terminal, and without having to wait for the tide, all it does take to get to Pulau Tekong is a less than 15 minute ride on a fast ferry.

changi1

As with the means by which personnel are sent over to Pulau Tekong, much about Changi Beach has changed. Many of the ketapang, acacia, pong pong and casuarina trees under which we might once have found Malay ladies weaving ketupat pouches from young coconut leaves, have since been uprooted. In their place, we now see a footpath with stone benches and trees carefully arranged where cars could once drive up to. The beach, littered with the deposits of the tide: seashells, mangrove propagules and drift wood, and the trunk of a coconut palm, is otherwise empty as is the horizon. It is reflective of the world we now find ourselves in, a world in which we have discarded much of who we were and one which we fill with the emptiness we now seek for our souls.