Tanah Merah, 1965

22 05 2017

Old photographs, of much cherished places that are no longer with us in Singapore, are a godsend. They help me to hold on to my sanity in a country that due to the relentless pace of change, feels much less like home with each passing day.

A set of such photos arrived in my inbox over the weekend. Taken in 1965 and sent by Ian Brooks, the photos are first in colour that I have come across of the Tanah Merah Besar area of my early childhood. The photos are especially precious for two reasons. One, the show a house perched on a set of cliffs (yes, cliffs!) and two, they also show one of many machine-gun pillbox that were then a fairly common sight.

The area in which these were taken – where the seaward end of Tanah Merah Besar Road turned northeast or left into Nicoll Drive and right or southwest to Wing Loong Road – was a gateway into a most magical of places, the Tanah Merah of my early childhood. That Tanah Merah was one of seaside kampungs, coconut groves, beach-side villas – one of which belonged to Singapore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall – and holiday bungalows (see also: Once Tanah Merah and also Mata Ikan) and one that provided me with some of the most memorable moments of my early childhood.

Sadly, nothing is left of it except for a Tanah Merah Besar Road that now ends at a fence (belonging to Changi Airport’s western perimeter), and the memories of a world that if not for the photographs that still exist, would surely fade away.





Colours of dawn 31 May 2014

31 05 2014

Colours of dawn, 6.31 am, 31 May 2014, as seen at the unmanicured beach of Kampong Wak Hassan.

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Dawn by the strait

26 05 2014

The colours of the dawn, at 6.35 am on 25 May 2014, seen painting the lightening sky over the Johor Strait (or Tebrau Strait). The area by the sea where the former Kampong Wak Hassan had once been, looks east towards the Pasir Gudang area of Johor across the channel, does make it an ideal location to catch the spectacle that often comes with the dawn of the new day.

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Silhouettes of a joy we have forgotten

3 03 2014

Silhouettes of the morning in a place by the sea, the simple joy of which we have long forgotten. The place, Sembawang, is one that hangs on to one of the last stretches of natural beaches left in Singapore. It is where I often find myself celebrating the new day, being one of the few places left in Singapore that is able to take me back to days when finding joy did seem a lot less complicated.

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(photographs taken on the morning of 2 March 2014)





The Bench through the rain

11 07 2013

A view of The Bench through the rain with the colours of the rising of the sun in the backdrop at 7.06 am on 9 July 2013. The Bench is very much a part of the scene along the top of an old seawall that used to belong to Kampong Wak Hassan at the end of Sembawang Road. That it is there, under the cool shade of a tree, is a mystery. Nobody does seem to know why it is there or who it had belonged to. It does serve to connect us with the kampong (now spelt kampung) or village which might otherwise be forgotten. The village was one of the last of the villages which one featured across much of rural Singapore to be cleared in 1998. More information on the village can be found on a previous post Monoscapes: Kampong Wak Hassan beach. The beach along the seawall is also one of the last natural sandy beaches left in Singapore and serves as a welcome escape for me from the overly urbanised landscape of modern Singapore (see: The song of a forgotten shore).

A view through the rain, 7.06 am, 9 July 2013.





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:






Kalang kabut, cabut! Close encounters of a slithery kind …

2 08 2010

As a child, the sea provided me with an endless source of fun. By day, I could splash in its cool green waters or play by the water’s edge, allowing breaking waves to come crashing on me. I often longed for the feel of salt on my skin, dried by the soothing warmth of the sun. When the tide went out, the sea provided a different kind of fun … the shallow waters off Changi Beach particularly offering access to the wealth of fascinating creatures that lived amongst the sea grass: crabs, sea urchins, giant starfish, sea cucumber, hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, fiddler crabs, sand dollars, sea snails and even shrimps which I could catch a glimpse of by looking for the two black eyes that stood out in contrast to the sandy bottom. Armed with a butterfly net, I could catch a harvest of edible flower crabs, sea snails (what we sometimes refer to as gong gong in Singapore), and shrimp, which could be cooked over an open fire once I got back to the beach. By night, the sea was another prospect altogether, and with the help of a companion shinning a light which attracted fish to it, there was a lot that I could catch from the sea with the same butterfly net. The sea off Sembawang near the Mata Jetty was particularly enjoyable, as we could catch a variety of small puffer fish which would inflate every time I managed to catch one.

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.

The giant red Knobbly Sea Star was also a common sight.

With all that fun to be had by the sea, holidays taken by the sea became a natural choice I guess, my parents opting to take them at the holiday bungalows in Tanah Merah, Mata Ikan and Changi, or often on the drives to Malaysia: Prot Dickson on the West Coast and Kemaman on the East Coast was a popular choice for them. It was on one of these holidays in Malaysia, this time closer to home, at Masai close to the Pasir Gudang area on the Malaysian side of the Straits of Johor, that, where in previous instances we had been oblivious to some of the hazards that the sea posed to us, that we became more careful whenever we went into the sea. I was perhaps about eight then and we were in Masai with a group of my parents’ friends, mostly teachers, which included a few children around of my age group, staying at some rather run down chalets by the beach. We had our usual dose of fun splashing in the gentle waves, and playing on the beach. Evenings were spent around an open fire on the beach exchanging stories about pontianaks, hantu galas, hantu momoks and all kinds of hantus (hantu is Malay for ghost). On the beach, with a torch in hand, someone had noticed the abundance of anchovies that darted around the water, attracted by the light and it was then that the adults decided to wade into the shallow waters to see if we could catch any, with nets fashioned from the shirts and singlets that the men wore. The children of course did not need an invitation to follow the adults, following a few paces behind as screams of glee accompanied the sight of the silvery harvest jumping as shirts was lifted from the water.

A banded Sea Krait, similar to the one I encountered in Masai (photo credit: Craig D)

Fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes into the excited frenzy, a scream of panic burst through the shouts of excitement – “Snake, snake!” came a cry which was followed with silence before pandemonium broke as everyone made for the safety of the beach. Boys, being boys, we somehow had fun in the process, adding to the commotion with screams of “kalang-kabut, cabut” (kalang-kabut is a colloquial term that I guess can be roughly translated as a chaotic frenzy, while cabut is in this context is to run away), not realising that in the midst of all that, one of my parents’ friends, had somehow run into the path of the escaping snake (sea snakes are usually not aggressive but they do possess some of the most potent venoms which can kill a person within half an hour). Safely ashore, we watched in silence as the dark complexioned friend emerged from the water, looking pale as if he had seen a ghost, followed by one of the older boys who had somehow managed to kill the snake with a wooden plank, with the trophy of the dead black and white banded snake. A closer inspection of the leg of the poor fellow revealed two fang marks near his ankle and he was attended to by another of my parents’ friend who was a nurse and sent to a nearby clinic. Fortunately, the victim survived, it turned out that no venom had been released into the bite and other than the two marks and a fright of his life, my parents’ friend was none the worse for the encounter. After the experience, we were a lot more careful about entering the water to catch fish at night … I suppose the fish that had been attracted by the lights had also attracted snakes as well … choosing usually not to go in … on the occasions that we did, we never ventured far out, choosing to stay close to shore … and often jumping at the sight of a slithering eel…





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.