A reminder of a world we long have discarded

10 05 2013

A road that featured in the many drives that my father made to Changi, was Tampines Road. Once described as Singapore’s longest road, the road is today 5 kilometres shorter than it then was, having been truncated in part by the construction of the Tampines Expressway (TPE) over the eastern end of the road. The road today, bears little resemblance to the seemingly endless rural road, the northern most bend of which ran along the boundary of Paya Lebar International Airport. The road featured many kampongs (villages) and also several fishing ponds which have all since vanished. All that seems left now to remind of that long lost world is the airport – now an air base.

A peek at a world left behind.

A window into a little piece of Tampines Road which the time seems to have been left behind.

A motor and tyre workshop dominates much of an area where time seems to stand very still.

A motor and tyre workshop dominates much of an area where time seems to stand very still.

Another reminder of that old Tampines Road, is a slice of its more recent past. This lies seemingly forgotten, just off what used to be the 9¾ milestone of the old Tampines Road, and close to a cluster of temple complexes, which if memory serves me right, cropped up from the 1970s. Just north of the temple cluster is a remnant of the old Hun Yeang Village, a name now only remembered by a short section of Hun Yeang Road that still exists. This would have been in the area of Hun Yeang Community Centre and the Tampines Veterinary Clinic, all of which have since disappeared. What is left is a rather dilapidated looking row of shophouses from the village’s recent past, in which a tyre dealer and motor workshop seems the busiest. The workshop and the shophouse rows seems caught in a time warp, lying somewhere between the past and the present, and a reminder of a suburban Singapore of the 1970s.

The row of shophouses at Hun Yeang Road.

The row of shophouses at Hun Yeang Road.

A scene which resembles that of the semi-urban rural world of the 1970s.

A scene which resembles that of the semi-urban rural world of the 1970s.

The area to the left was where the Community Centre once was, and to the right where the vet clinic was.

The area to the left was where the Community Centre once was, and to the right where the vet clinic was.

What perhaps is most interesting, was the man who gave his name to road and the village, Khoo Hun Yeang. A prominent Penang born businessman who lived from 1860 to 1917, Khoo, worked on his father’s coconut plantation on the mainland side of Penang before venturing into other businesses. He was to also join the Opium and Spirit revenue farm in Penang in which his father was a partner. He would also become a Managing Partner (from 1899) and Managing Director (from 1902 to 1906) of the Opium and Spirit Farms in Singapore. The farms, revenue farms, were licenses granted through a tender for the collection of taxes on behalf of the then Straits Settlements government for items that the government regulated and maintained a monopoly on. Those that were related to opium and spirits were especially lucrative. Khoo left the Opium and Spirit Farms in 1906 and moved to Kuching where he was involved in the construction business. Khoo’s association with the Tampines area came through his purchase of a 81 ha. fruit and rubber plantation in 1913. Tragically, Khoo passed away in a motor accident in 1917 in Medan, where he had gone to seek medical treatment. He was then buried in Penang.

Truck tyres dominate the scene in front of the row of shophouses.

Truck tyres in front of the row of shophouses.

That time would catch up with what’s left of the former Hun Yeang Village, there is little doubt. But, until that happens, this little piece of the past will be one I can hold on to, though not as a place that I have interacted with, but one in which I am reminded of that old, familiar and gentle world I had grown to love as child;  a world that I would never ever be able to return to.


Images related to Tampines Primary School / Hun Yeang Village provided by hoosiers:

Tampines Primary School Crest / Badge.

Tampines Primary School Crest / Badge.

Members of the Staff, 1968.

Members of the Staff, 1968.

Members of the Staff, 1982.

Members of the Staff, 1982.

This gentleman was our senior assistant then. I got to meet him during this CNY for the first time since 1977 (37 yrs later). Pretty overwhelming..

This gentleman was our senior assistant then.
I got to meet him during this CNY for the first time since 1977 (37 yrs later). Pretty overwhelming..

The mere sight of this turquoise Ford Anglia will strike fear in every pupil of TPS as it means the Senior Assistant cum Discipline Master is around somewhere in the school..

The mere sight of this turquoise Ford Anglia will strike fear in every pupil of TPS as it means the Senior Assistant cum Discipline Master is around somewhere in the school..




Map showing location of Hun Yeang Village.

Map showing location of Hun Yeang Village.

Excursion to Paya Lebar Airport.

Excursion to Paya Lebar Airport.


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 Besar, 1958, posted by Graham Collins on Facebook.

The roads less travelled …

9 02 2010

As trivial as a fence may appear, a fence does have a place in the memories I have of my childhood. It is a fence that I now pass on the drive to work, which for a while seemed to deserve no more than a cursory glance at, part of the uninspiring landscape along the stretch of Tampines Road which is visible from the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE). The KPE is the latest addition to the Singapore’s impressive expressway network, which should really make travelling across Singapore a breeze.

The KPE running across Tampines Road.

All too frequently, though, driving along the KPE, as with many of the other expressways, is hardly a breeze, and one wonders if it would soon join the ranks of the “every road pay” network. “Every road pay” is of course what many locals use to refer to Electronic Road Pricing or ERP. It was on one of these crawls that I allowed my thoughts to drift as I surveyed the scene before me, and drift it did, as I was soon back in the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100, peering out of the open window at the fence.

Tampines Road in the 1960s - as it would have looked in the 1970s.

Tampines Road in the 1960s – as it would have looked in the 1970s.

For me, the fence, which marks the northern boundary of Paya Lebar Airbase (it was then the Paya Lebar International Airport), had served as a marker of sorts on the frequent long drives my father took along Tampines Road. Looking out for the fence helped to break the monotony of what seemed a long and boring journey, a journey that I willingly partook in for the reward that lay at the end of it, be it a fun day at the beach or wandering around the old Changi Village.

The high fence along Tampines Road.

The journey on Tampines Road would start with a right turn from Upper Serangoon Road, near the sixth milestone, just after the sixth mile market, an area my mother had fond memories of, having spent a part of her childhood in. She would never fail to mention a thing or two about her memories as my father turned into Tampines Road, about which my father would sometimes tease her about. The start of Tampines Road seemed to always be rather busy, as we followed the mini-convoys of rubbish trucks on their way to the Lorong Halus landfill.

The Upper Serangoon Road 6th Milestone area ... a well known market stood the left of the picture which has since disappeared - this is the junction where turn off to Tampines Road is.

The start of Singapore's longest road: Tampines Road.

The right trun from Upper Serangoon Road to Tampines Road would be accompanied by stories my mother had of the 6th milestone area from her childhood.

The first sight of the fence along the road was the precursor to the start of a meandering path eastwards through what was Singapore’s longest road. It was a path that would start with a large bend that brought us past a cluster of houses at Jalan Telawi, seemingly the last sighting of civilisation before we descended into the greener, narrower and quieter section of the road, passing by villages and fishing ponds … and of course Elias Road – the gateway to Pasir Ris beach.

The fence and the bend in the road signified the start of the meandering part of Tampines Road.

Immersed in the musings of a time when journeys on roads less travelled could only be undertaken at a pace far slower than what we are used to these day, my mind drifted off to the many journeys of my childhood along the other roads less travelled: Jurong, Choa Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang, Neo Tiew, Punggol, and Sembawang Roads to name a few. While many of these roads have been swallowed up or disfigured by redevelopment, a few remnants of the old stretches of these roads still remains, very much as how it had must have been, albeit devoid of the life the roads were built to sustain. These remnants sit silent and forgotten, discarded for the numerous highways that have replaced them to enable the sheer volume of today’s traffic to be carried.

A remnant of Jurong Road running parallel to the Pan Island Expressway.

The journeys on these roads always seemed to take forever. They were never journeys that were taken for the love of a long drive, but usually for the incentive that the destination provided. The ones to some of the “ends” of the island was usually reward with a feast of seafood in one of those wooden shacks that lay at the end of the road where land met the sea. Punggol and Tuas (accessible from Jurong Road) Roads featured these popular old style seafood restaurants where utensils and teacups would be brought to the table in a bowl of steaming hot water. There would of course be the customary bowl of water with lime cut in half bobbing up and down on the surface of the water. These were meant to clean one’s fingers as one fiddled with the delicious mess of gravy coated crabs and prawns that were served. The thought of this brings to mind a story that a friend of my father’s related. He had brought a foreign visitor to one of these restaurants and on seeing the bowl of water place on the table, the visitor prompted squeezed the lime in the bowl of water and emptied the contents of the bowl into his mouth, believing that it was a refreshment of sorts!

On occasion, the journey to Tuas would involve seafood harvested straight from the sea, in the glow of camphor lamps – the smell of which still lingers in my memory. This wasn’t a journey that my mother was particularly fond of, as it often meant a drive home in the wee hours of the morning, past a shadowy part of the old Jurong Road where the rather spooky looking Bulim cemetery always seemed to leap out at you. This was the road that would go through what would now be Bukit Batok housing estate, to the junction with Upper Bukit Timah Road. My mother would always heave a sigh of relief at he sight of Bukit Timah Fire Station and the huge Green Spot bottle at the entrance of the Amoy Canning factory, as this signified our the re-entrance to civilisation.

Where civilisation began ... the start of Jurong Road at the Bukit Timah Fire Station and the Green Spot Bottle next door.

Jurong Road would be the road the buses took on the many school excursions of my primary school days. Even then, the journeys seemed to take forever. I would look out for the distinctive JTC flats with the louvered windows of their exteriors at the junction of Jurong and Upper Jurong Roads, Jalan Bahar, and Jalan Boon Lay, where HDB flats seemed to feature common corridors, as it meant the journey would be drawing to its close. The turn left along Jalan Boon Lay would always be greeted with anticipation by my classmates, for near the end of the road, a whiff of chocolate would always greet us as we passed the Van Houten chocolate factory as we made our way along what seemed like a grand avenue lined with trees on the wide central divider.

What is nice to know is that there are a few remnants of the narrow roads less travelled that remain, some sitting beside their modern replacements which carry a much heavier volume of traffic to and from the huge densely populated public housing estates, constructed where there were once farms and villages. They serve as a reminder of the journeys that I have taken in my childhood some of which I have lasting impressions of.