Mount Washington, an old world restored

17 02 2015

It will probably come as no surprise the elevated and lush green surroundings provided by the south facing slopes of Singapore’s southern ridges, with the magnificent views of the coastline it offers, plays host to several palatial residences of an old and forgotten Singapore. One that has seen some of its lost glory recently restored, is a majestic two-storey house perched on Telok Blangah Hill, Alkaff Mansion. Once a weekend escape belonging to the very prominent Alkaff family, the mansion stands today as reminder of a world we long have left behind.

The Alkaff Mansion, restored to its former glory.

The Alkaff Mansion, restored to its former glory.

The mansion, referred to as “merely one of the Alkaff family’s weekend bungalows” and situated “at the end of a long road winding from Pasir Panjang Road through the country”, is described in an article in the 16 September 1934 edition of The Straits Times:

It commands a unique view of the coast, the city and indeed, almost the entire island … Viewed from the bottom of a steep drive leading through the well-kept grounds to the foot of a long flight of stone steps, Mount Washington looks large. It has a broad façade and at each end are two turrets. On the ground floor, a verandah leads to a long narrow dining room. Behind the dining room are the servants’ quarters. On the second floor is another verandah, another long room and behind it one large and two small bedrooms … 

It is not very liberally furnished but the verandah on the first floor is a most refreshing retreat, armchairs and settees of teak having blue tapestry fittings. There are many gilt-framed photographs on easels in the house, also many heavy gilt and Venetian mirrors …

With its semi-circular white stone balustrade at the top of the bank on which it is built, its stately firs and its view, it is a most tempting place to live.

Alkaff house seen in its heyday in the 1920s (National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

Standing on the terrace where the house stands today, it would not be difficult to imagine how grand appearance it might have appeared at the time of the article, when it was known as Mount Washington – the name the hill also seemed at some point in time to have been referred to. The article also makes mention of a garden party the Alkaffs hosted in June of that year. The party, which had over 400 guests on Mount Washington’s grounds, was held to celebrate the appointment as a Justice of the Peace, of the Alkaffs’ General Manager, Haji Shaikh Yahya bin Ahmad Afifi.

The staircase leading up to the terrace.

The staircase leading up to the terrace.

While there have several suggestions that property had so been named due to the close relations the Alkaffs had with the American community, it does seem that its had been called Mount Washington even before Syed Abdulrahman Alkaff purchased the property for $32,000 in 1916 (see “Property Sale“, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 21 June 1916, Page 12). Advertisements placed in the local press show that a mortgagee had made several attempts since the end of 1913 to dispose of Mount Washington, several years before it was purchased by Syed Abdulrahman Alkaff.

A newspaper advertisement for the sale of Mount Washington in 1916.

A newspaper advertisement for the sale of Mount Washington in 1916.

Whether it was from the property, the grounds of which was “planted with rubber trees and also coconut trees”, that the name of hill would be derived from, is also a source of debate. Previously known as Bukit Jagoh, there are several references made to the hill as Mount Washington in newspaper reports that go back to 1908.

A view of the building's side.

A view of the building’s side.

The mansion, as is laid out today, is thought to originate to 1926 and since its heydays in the 1920s and 1930s has experienced a mixed bag of fortunes, having been abandoned after the war. It was to see use again in 1970  when it served as the headquarters of the World Buddhist Society. In 1984, the society had to vacate the premises when it was acquired for an extension to Mount Faber Park and it was only at the end of the 1980s that some of its former majesty was to be restored, when it was converted into a restaurant.

The former weekend residence of the Alkaffs is now a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

The former weekend residence of the Alkaffs is now a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

Unfortunately, the restaurant closed in 2003 and it was left vacant until an exercise in 2010 by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) resulted in a lease being taken up by the LHN Group. The group has since restored the now conserved mansion (it was gazetted for conservation by the URA in 2005) beautifully and since the end of 2011, has operated a fine dining Italian restaurant on the premises – serving to reminds us of days of glory that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The former Alkaff house in the 1980s after the World Buddhist Society vacated it (National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

The former Alkaff House used as the headquarters  of the World Buddhist Society.

The former Alkaff House was used as the headquarters of the World Buddhist Society (Radin Mas Heritage Guide).





New journeys on the Rail Corridor

23 12 2013

It has been over two years since we saw the last train make its journey through the 26 kilometres of the Rail Corridor from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. While we do know that the corridor will be preserved as a continuous and green corridor in its entirety, detailed plans have not as yet been developed on its future usage. Much of the corridor is today opened up as a space for the public to enjoy leisure and recreational activities and it is nice to see the corridor being used for events such as mass participation runs along stretches of it. One further use it will see in the interim is as an art space – the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in partnership with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and the National Arts Council (NAC) has announced that an interim art space will be made available underneath the Commonwealth Avenue viaduct structure along the Rail Corridor from Jan to Dec 2014.

The (former) rail corridor embarks on a different journey.

The (former) rail corridor embarks on a different journey.

The sheltered space – two walls beneath the viaduct structure, is to be transformed into a canvas that will provide an opportunity for street artists to develop their skills in producing artwork and perhaps bring life to a part of the Rail Corridor. RSCLS, an urban art collective and a recipient of the NAC Seed Grant, has been engaged by the NAC to curate the art work at space from February 2014 onwards and we can look forward to Street Art jams that will provide opportunities for first-hand experiences with street art. 


More on the Rail Corridor, it as a Green Corridor and the public effort to preserve it:






The silence of a world forgotten

10 12 2012

I recently had a look in and around the former Bukit Timah Railway Station, lying quiet and abandoned while plans have not been made for its future use. The station, the last on the old Malayan Railway (known in more recent times as Keretapi Tanah Melayu or KTM), where the old key token exchange system was employed, was vacated on 1 July 2011 when the southern terminal of the railway was moved to Woodlands, and is now a conserved building.

A bridge that's now too far.

A bridge that’s now too far.

Bukit Timah Railway Station is now world that almost seems forgotten.

A world that almost seems forgotten.

The station is one that was built as part of the 1932 railway deviation. The deviation raised the line (hence the four bridges south of Bukit Panjang – one of which, a grider bridge over Hillview Road, has since been removed), as well as turned it towards Holland Road and the docks at Tanjong Pagar. Bukit Timah Railway Station in more recent times prior to its closure operated almost forgotten, seen mainly by passengers on passing trains, operated only in a signalling role. It was only as the closure of the railway line through Singapore loomed that more took notice of the station and the archaic practice of exchanging key tokens.

A window into the forgotten world.

A window into the forgotten world.

The ghost of station masters past?

The ghost of station masters past?

Together with the nearby truss bridge, one of two longer span railway bridges over the Bukit Timah area, which in some respects gives the area some of its character, the station lies today somewhat forgotten. The frenzy that accompanied the last days of the railway and the days that followed prior to the removal of the tracks has since died down – the post track removal turfing work intended to level the terrain and prevent collection of rain water has probably served to do the opposite and rendered the ground too soft and mushy to have a pleasant walk on).

The tracks along much of the rail corridor has since been removed with only short sections such as this one at the truss bridge at close to Bukit Timah Railway Station left behind.

The tracks along much of the rail corridor has since been removed with only short sections such as this one at the truss bridge at close to Bukit Timah Railway Station left behind.

The last half dozen or more than 30 levers that were once found in the signalling room of the station.

Through broken panes, the last half dozen of more than 30 levers that were once found in the signalling room of the station is seen.

While interest in the rail corridor seems to have faded with the passage of time, there may yet be motivation to pay a visit to it in the next month or so. A recent announcement (see Removal of structures along Rail Corridor dated 23 Nov 2012) made by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) points to the removal of unsound structures. These unsound structures include two of the signal huts at the former level crossings, one of which does have a memorial of sorts to the last day of railway operations and the last train. Besides the huts, some buildings that served as lodgings including the ones at Blackmore Drive, will also be demolished. Work on removal of the structures, based on the announcement, are to be completed by the end of January 2013 and this December probably offers the last opportunity to see the affected areas of the rail corridor as it might once have been.

A Brahminy Kite flies over the formaer railway station.

A Brahminy Kite flies over the formaer railway station.

277A0006





Bananas may be allowed to grow on State Land after all

15 05 2012

Back in March this year, several illegal occupants of plots of former KTM land along the old Jurong Line along Sungei Ulu Pandan (just north of the Clementi Avenue 4) received notices of eviction from the Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) (see Let the bananas grow on State Land). SLA had on acting on complaints made by residents in the area on the nuisance and potential fire hazard caused by the burning of branches and leaves by the occupants, found that the occupants had fenced up plots of State Land for private use, as well as erected make-shift structures that included an outdoor toilet. Stagnant water collected on the plots of land also raise a concern of mosquito breeding. All this made it necessary to evict the illegal occupants.

The farms that received eviction orders are along a stretch of the former Jurong Rail Corridor which has been disused since the 1990s and returned to the State by the railway operator KTM.

While the reasons cited by SLA were not in dispute, several of the individuals occupying the land did express hope that they would be allowed to continue, seeking the help of the Member of Parliament representing the area Ms Sim Ann, who also happens to be the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Law the SLA is under. A positive development that seemed to come out of this was that while in the past very limited discussion would have been possible, discussions conducted with the SLA through Ms Sim Ann seemed to be encouraging with several options explored to allow the use of the land for regulated farming that would benefit the wider community which would involve the granting of Temporary Occupancy Licenses.

Possible location of a 50 x 25 metre plot of land which will be divided to smaller plots which occupants will pay a nominal fee annually for use (click to enlarge).

Based on news that has filtered through this afternoon, it does seem that a somewhat positive outcome has emerged out of the discussion. While it does not seem to be entirely what the occupants had hoped for, it appears that a certain level of farming activities will be tolerated in the area on a 50 by 25 metre plot of land (see map) that will be divided into 30 parcels each measuring 8 by 4 metres for which a nominal annual fee for usage will be charged. The parcels would also be provided with potable water for their use. This would mean that the occupants of the farms in the area would be required to vacate the plots they occupy and move into the designated area – which I understand the majority are in support of as it would allow them to continue with their gardening activities.





Let the bananas grow on State Land

14 03 2012

There has been a fair bit of news on the Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) eviction of farmers occupying land along Sungei Ulu Pandan just north of the Clementi Avenue 4 area. The issue first came to light when an impassioned letter, written by the son of one of the farmers was sent to SLA on 7 March to appeal the eviction, which was followed by a Straits Time report “Group told to clear out ‘farm’ on state land” published on 10 Mar 2012. The SLA has since clarified their position, stating the reasons behind the eviction of the farmers who have for several years illegally occupied what is State Land.

Vegetable plots along a former rail corridor. An eviction notice has been posted on each of the farms occupying what is State Land along Sungei Ulu Pandan.

The land in question lies along the Jurong Rail Corridor. The rail corridor was built in the mid 1960s to serve Jurong Industrial Estate and has been disused since the mid 1990s – after which the land was returned to the State by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM). The writer of the letter, had written of what the farm had meant to his 71-year-old father who tended to it, which provided “much joy, personal well-being and an avenue for physical activity”. He also added that the space had also allowed his children an education beyond what the classrooms are able to provide.

The farms being evicted are along a stretch of the former Jurong Rail Corridor which has been disused since the 1990s and returned to the State by the railway operator KTM.

The SLA in exercising its right to evict the farmers – not least for the illegal occupation of State land, also cited several reasons beyond illegal occupation. These include the fencing up of the parcels of land involved, the erection of make-shift sheds and an outdoor toilet, as well as the collection of stagnant water which had a potential for mosquito breeding. It does appear that the SLA has acted on complaints made by residents in the area on the nuisance caused by the burning of branches and leaves which has affected the air quality in the area – as well as the act being a potential fire hazard. SLA position has also drawn support from some members of the public – one, Mr Tony Lee, in a letter to the Straits Times Forum published today, brought up an important consideration that “if such squatters are tolerated, more and more will occupy state land illegally”.

Banana trees on State land - some of the younger generation have never seen bananas growing on trees.

There isn’t any doubt about the validity of the concerns raised over the illegal use of land, or on the need to carry out the necessary enforcement on the SLA’s part. This episode does however, open a window of opportunity for the Authorities to look beyond the enforcement of the law (which is there for good reason) and take a step towards a gentler and more inclusive society that has very much been talked about of late. The signs are certainly encouraging based on a news report in today’s edition of the Straits Times (“Let’s talk, SLA tells farmers”, Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2012). The report does indicate that the SLA has changed its tact slightly and has now opened a channel for discussion with farmers who willing to come forward by 20 March.

A makeshift scarecrow at one of the farms?

While in all probability the discussion would be on a possible extension to the deadline of 20 March imposed by the SLA for the clearance of illegally occupied State Land, I do hope that it goes far beyond that. While that the farms have been illegally set-up and fenced up and that there are public safety and health concerns associated with them is never in question, there is some scope to look into maintaining what is already there and extending access to them to the wider community in the interim (the SLA does note that there are no immediate plans for the use of the particular stretch of land). An idea mooted by a guide during one of the walks organised by the good people behind “We Support the Green Corridor” I attended a while ago, Ms Margie Hall of the Nature Society of Singapore, was that the Authorities grant temporary occupation licences to the farmers. This would not only allow the farmers – mostly retirees, a useful pursuit in their advanced years, it will also permit the use of land to be regulated. This will also allow concerns of residents and the Authorities to be managed and eliminated and its use opened up to the community. It is the community that would stand to gain most from this – allowing both young and old a space in their neighbourhood to which they would be able to escape the urban Singapore we have become to a calmer, gentler and greener Singapore – a Singapore from which we have all emerged from and a Singapore we have long forgotten of.


SLA’s reply to Straits Times article “Group told to clear out ‘farm’ on state land” published on 10 Mar 2012:

SLA makes available vacant State land, pending their development, for interim use by the community for recreational activities. Over the years, SLA has upgraded vacant State land for such uses. There are today 270 community use sites in various parts of Singapore for the community to use and enjoy.

However, State land is a precious resource and must be maintained and managed responsibly. An important principle that we uphold without exception is that individuals or groups of them are not allowed to encroach and lay claim on State land for their private use. Where State land is allowed for community use, it is important that it does not cause disamenities for the neighbourhood, and does not adversely affect the land and the environment, such as causing ground contamination or mosquito breeding.

In this case, some individuals have not only encroached on State land for their private purposes but several of them have also fenced up parcels of land as their “own” and padlocked them for their exclusive use. There are also illegally erected make-shift sheds and even an outdoor toilet (photos attached). During our inspection, we found several ponds with stagnant water which are potential mosquito breeding grounds if left unchecked. We have also received feedback of the burning of branches and leaves which affects the air quality for the residents nearby and are a potential fire hazard.

In the interest of all residents living in the vicinity, SLA’s immediate priority is to stop the burning of leaves and commence vector control measures. We will also give those responsible for the encroachment a reasonable period of time to dismantle and remove the enclosed areas and illegally erected structures, failing which we will have to take action to remove them.

The land is zoned as “Reserve” under the Master Plan 2008 and there are no immediate plans for the site at this point in time. In the interim, SLA will seek and consider the views of the grassroots organisations whether the land can be put to some form of community use for the enjoyment of the residents in the vicinity. However, any such use is interim and will have to cease when the land is required for future development.






A gradual reopening of the Rail Corridor

2 09 2011

Members of the media and the Rail Corridor working group were provided with an update on the track removal works and plans to reopen parts of the Rail Corridor as work is being completed early this morning during a walkabout in the vicinity of Bukit Timah Railway Station with Minister of Law, Mr. K Shanmungam, the Minister of State (National Development) BG Tan Chuan-Jin, the Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Education & Ministry of Law, Ms Sim Ann, and officers from the SLA, MND, URA and Nparks.

Minister of Law, Mr Shanmugam briefed members of the media and the Rail Corridor Consultation Group on the progress of SLA's track removal work and the reopening of the Rail Corridor for use by the community.

Mr Shanmugam being briefed by a SLA officer near the truss bridge.

The Minister also responded to concerns raised by members of the public about damage to existing vegetation during track removal works in the vicinity of the station and explained that the SLA had been “aware of the need to preserve vegetation and no trees were removed”. He also stated that turfing works over the area of the removed tracks, which is now quite evident, was necessary to ensure that there was little risk of water ponding. The tracks, all ancilliary structures such as signal posts, kilometre markers and the ballast are being removed and returned as part of the agreement with Malaysia, with the exception of a stretches in way of the platforms of the two conserved stations and the three bridges that will be retained.

Turfing work south of Bukit Timah Railway Station.

A section of the tracks in way of the Bukit Timah Railway Station platform is being retained.

Another view of Bukit Timah Railway Station. Besides the tracks, one sign and several other structures are being kept.

A map at the station showing SLA's removal plans which identify the bridges that will be retained.

The truss bridge at Bukit Timah / Dunearn Roads with trufing work and the portion of tracks to be retained very much in evidence.

The SLA also announced the reopening of a 1.4 kilometre stretch of the Rail Corridor where track removal and turfing work is being completed from the 16th of September. The stretch is from the steel truss bridge over Bukit Timah / Dunearn Road southwards. This will allow members of the public to enjoy walks along the stretch. Work to remove the tracks is scheduled to be completed by 31st December this year and portions of the former railway land will be progressively opened to the public as the removal works are being completed.

Rather than the green SLA signs we are used to, signs welcoming the public are being put up along the stretches of the Rail Corridor that are bing reopened.

The portion of the track being retained at the truss bridge at Bukit Timah / Dunearn Roads. a 1.4 km stretch from the bridge southwards is being opened up to the public from 16th September.

Mr Shanmugam being interviewed by members of the media at Bukit Timah Railway Station.

Mr Shanmugam speaking to Mr Leong Kwok Peng of the Nature Society (Singapore).

The public will also have access to the former Bukit Timah Railway Station building. Members of the public are advised refrain from acts vandalism, which the bridges and the tracks have been subject to. The station as we see today, has been stripped of items belonging to the railway, including signalling equipment and signal levers (except for six that remain). The station sign on the north end has also been returned to Malaysia, with Singapore retaining the one on the south end. The longer term plans for Bukit Timah Railway Station will be part of the URA’s comprehensive review of development plans for the former railway land and their surrounding areas and as part of its review, the URA will study the possibility of marrying development and greenery, such as applying innovative strategies to maintain a continuous green link along the rail corridor without affecting the development potential of the lands.

The Station Master's room at Bukit Timah Station, stripped of the safe which sat on the yellow support structure next to the door.

Another view of the room where the key token signal equipment had once been placed.

All that are left are six signal levers.

Another view of the six signal levers.


Photographs proivided by SLA explaining the track removal process:






The mourning after the morning after

1 08 2011

A month after the cessation of the old Malayan Railway’s services through Singapore and into Tanjong Pagar, we are seeing, besides the removal of the tracks, a complete alteration in the physical landscape of one of the prettier parts of what the Nature Society hopes would be a Green Corridor through Singapore, and possibly erasing features of the landscape that one would associate with a former rail corridor.

The view down the corridor in the Bukit Timah Station area on 1st July 2011.

The view from Bukit Timah Station.

Another look at the work in the vicinity of the station. Earth is being filled over the corridor erasing any traces of the former rail corridor.

There is no doubt that the area is one of the favourites amongst the many Singaporeans who now have walked the length of the rail corridor, being one that in its relative isolation was blessed with lush greenery and a wonderful array of bird and insect life. It was here that one can get up close to the munias that frolic on the railway tracks, the noisy parakeets that flutter on the branches of the trees above and even oriental pied hornbills flying overhead. It was also here where one could dance with the wondrous colours of the delightful dragonflies and butterflies and get a breath of wonderfully fresh air as dawn turns into day.

The area was where one could once dance with dragonflies.

There was a wealth of flora and fauna in the area - a pair of Scaly Breasted Munias seen on the railway tracks in June 2011.

The area is also probably one of the less accessible areas of the tracks and there was already some concerns raised prior to the work commencing to remove the tracks in the area about an access road that was being built into the area through the lush Clementi woodland that separates the area from Clementi Road to which the authorities have explained was necessary to facilitate the removal works which was being carried out within an extremely tight schedule and the authorities pledging that SLA and the contractors involved would work with NParks to plan access routes and minimise the damage to the existing flora and fauna. That however does not seem to be what is happening on the ground, and even with photos I have seen and feedback I have received from friends, I was unprepared for what I saw in my first visit to the area since it was closed up to the public on the 18th of July. What greeted me was a scene beyond what I imagined could have happened in a mere two weeks. Beyond the removal of the tracks, sleepers and other structures along that stretch of the corridor, it looks as if the whole area has been transformed into a dusty work yard where there had been some of the most wonderful greenery. The entire width of the corridor seems as if it is not just an access road to the area that is being built, but an entire highway through from Holland Road to Bukit Timah Station, with even soil being brought in to raise the level of what had been the rail corridor erasing any traces that it might have once been a rail corridor. While the vegetation and the animals that make the area such a wonderful place to run off to, may find its way back to the area once work is completed, what is certainly of concern is that all the work that is being done has also altered the landscape of one of the prettiest parts of the rail corridor and with that, a lot of how it had been and any evidence of the railway it may have had is now a thing of the past.

Another view of the clearing and earth filling works.

A wide area has been cleared and now looks like a huge work yard.

The undisturbed view towards Bukit Timah Station on 17 July 2011.

Captioned on a previous post 'The sun sets over the rail corridor': 'A scene that would soon only be a memory - the rail corridor on the 17th of July 2011 just as I want to remember it'. How true it now all seems.

The view towards Bukit Timah Station on 31 July 2011.

Another view towards Bukit Timah Station on 31 July 2011.

Earth is being brought in and the level of the former corridor is being raised.

The new soil that is placed to raise the level of the corridor burying any traces of the original corridor beneath it.

It looks almost as if a road is being built over the former rail corridor.

An excavator sits on new earth being brought in to bury the rail corridor.

Vegetation that has been trampled on by the vehicles in the area.

The human invasion wouldn't be complete without litter left behind to clog streams in the area.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.









Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,655 other followers

%d bloggers like this: