Postcards from the South

27 07 2018

Introducing Postcards from the South.

The 394 page book, a work of love by its author Mahen Bala, offers a wonderful collection of stories of stations and interactions with them, previously unpublished photographs and maps, as well as a historic look at the southern stretches of the Malayan Railway – between Gemas and Tanjong Pagar.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Bukit Timah Railway Station as well as the Causeway, which provided a vital link to the Peninsula, also feature.
The book will go on sale in Singapore at Kinokuniya and Select Books in about 2 weeks time. More information on the book can be found at Projek Keretapi Kita.

Cover of Postcards from the South.

Bukit Timah Railway Station and one of its last Station Masters, Atan Ahmad (image : Projek Keretapi Kita).

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (image: Projek Keretapi Kita).






Tanjong Pagar: a promise that we now know would never be fulfilled

11 07 2012

Standing silently and somewhat forgotten is a building that, only a year ago, attracted many people’s attention in Singapore. This building, the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, a magnificent architectural achievement once described as having a “palatial appearance”, recently joined Singapore’s list of National Monuments. Completed in 1932, the station was built as a centrepiece to underline Singapore’s growing importance as an economic centre in the British Far East, serving as a gateway for the southernmost point in continental Asia to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Located opposite the docks at Tanjong Pagar, the station was one that had been well-considered. The then Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, in his address at the station’s opening on 2 May 1932, had made the observation that it was “a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic” and mentioned that it was “where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”. The promise was, however, not fulfilled – Sir Cecil could not have predicted that the railway’s importance as a means of transportation in the Malayan peninsula would diminish.

The station’s opening that day was marked by the 5.15 pm arrival, from Bukit Panjang Station, of its first train. This train carried several dignitaries, including the Governor, the Sultan of Perak and Mr J Strachan, the General Manager of the Federated Malay States Railway. Several months prior to the opening (on 2 January 1932), the station had already made its public debut – by playing host to a Manufacturers’ Exhibition – an indication perhaps of its eventual destiny.

The station’s façade with the four large triumphal figures.

My first encounters with the station took place at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. My parents often drove past, drawn by the hawker stalls which operated in the evenings in a car-park facing the station’s entrance. It was while sitting at the tables in the car-park that I would gaze across to the station’s façade and stare at the four large, triumphal figures that flanked the portico’s arches. The figures were the work of Angelo Vannetti of the Raoul Bigazzi Studios Florence and represented the pillars of the Malayan economy. These triumphal figures are evidence of the Art Deco style chosen by its architects, Swan and MacLaren. Thought to have been inspired by Helsinki’s Central Station, it is believed the station also shares some of Washington DC’s Union Station’s design features. In fact Tanjong Pagar Station’s architectural elements reveal both western and eastern influences; the green-tiled roof structures were inspired by the roofs of Chinese Temples.

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

On the rare occasions when I found myself in the main hall, the high vaulted ceiling that rises some 22 metres above the ground caught my attention, as did the six sets of mosaic panels that resemble giant batik paintings. The mosaic panels, which contain a total of 9,000 tiles, looked very much like the batik prints hanging in my home. The panels depict scenes that represent the economies of the then Federated Malay States. At that time, the station had also housed a hotel on the upper floors, around the main hall. A huge sign in the north-east corner of the hall made sure this did not go unnoticed.

It was in the 1990s that I first took a train out of the station. Seemingly in defiance of its location, a huge blue “Welcome to Malaysia” sign stood above the station’s entrance. A Points of Agreement (POA) had been signed in 1990 between the Malaysian Government and their Singapore counterparts. This was to pave the way for the eventual moving of the station from Tanjong Pagar and would involve its handover along with the land the railway ran through (whose ownership was transferred to the railway administration through a 1918 ordinance – effectively making it part of Malaysia).

Two decades of protracted negotiations followed the 1990 POA before the differences in its interpretation resulted in a renegotiation of land swap arrangements between the two governments. The moving of the station from Tanjong Pagar and the handover of land was agreed on only in May 2010.

It was perhaps at the beginning of 2011 that interest in the station and in train journeys from Tanjong Pagar started to build. The realisation that the station was soon to close drew crowds not previously seen at the station. Many turned up for a final look, to make a last departure or to have a last meal at the station, joined by a frenzy of photographers and members of both the local and overseas media, who seemed intent on recording the station’s last days.

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

The final day of operations at the station, 30 June 2011, came all too soon. It was an especially poignant day for the station’s railway staff and also for the food-stall operators – some were seen having a last breakfast in the almost empty room that only days before had been filled with food-stalls and tables filled with diners. Well before the first train was to depart, a crowd had already gathered in the main hall. Many had come to witness the final moments. Some had come to start a journey that would end with a final homecoming to the station on the very last train that evening.

The crowds grew as the day passed. As night fell, many more gathered to witness the historic departure of the last train out, to be driven by the Sultan of Johor. I had come on the very last in-bound train and was prepared for the reception at the station by the scenes I had seen along the way. Huge crowds had gathered at Bukit Timah Station and at each of the five level crossings, to bid goodbye. After the train finally pulled in following a long delay at Bukit Timah, I lingered a while before stepping out onto the platform. I turned back for a final glance at the platform, realising that would be the last of my many homecomings into Tanjong Pagar.

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

As I stepped through the barrier, a crowd of would-be passengers heading towards the same train that had pulled in (now the last train out) almost swept me along with them. I managed to squeeze my way out while a frenzy was developing in the public areas. Through the crowd I spotted the Sultan, dressed in a checked shirt and speaking to reporters with tears in his eyes. At the final hour a huge cheer could be heard as the train pulled out, driven by the Sultan. In a daze I stared after it as the train faded into the darkness. It was then that I heard the silence that was there despite the noise coming from the crowd. It was one that filled the air – a silence that after some 79 years would never again be broken by the once-familiar sounds, a silence that spoke of the promise that we now know would never be fulfilled.


This article was written to coincide with the first anniversary of the closure of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and has been published as “Tanjong Pagar Railway Station” in the July / August issue of Passage, a bi-monthly magazine produced by the Friends of the Museums (FOM).


Further information on Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and on the anniversary of the handover:

  • Photographs of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on the anniversary of its handover can be found at my post Tanjong Pagar One Year On.
  • A complete series of posts related to my encounters with Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, the railway and the journeys I have made through the station can be found at my “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar” page.
  • Article (in Chinese) that may be of interest published in the Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao on the 1st of July in which some my views connected with the Rail Corridor were sought can be found at this link.




Tanjong Pagar one year on

2 07 2012

I stepped into the eerie silence of a world that a little over a year ago, had been one that had seen the frenzy that accompanied the last moments of the old Malayan Railway’s operations through Singapore. The now silent world, Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, is now but an empty shell, abandoned by the trains that regularly punctured the air with the deafening roar of their diesel locomotives as well as by the people who made the station what it was – the hardworking staff of the railway, those who saw to providing it with essential services, and those who came and went with the comings and goings of the trains.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station 1 year on.

The station was able to momentarily break out of its solitude due to a kind offer by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to the Nature Society Singapore (NSS) and the Friends of the Rail Corridor to open up both Tanjong Pagar Railway Station to the public on the first anniversary of the handover of the station and the Rail Corridor to the Government of Singapore. As a result of this, a Rail Corridor Open Day was very quickly put together. This included a guided walk in the morning held at Bukit Timah Station which was followed by an open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in the afternoon. The handful of people that did turn up at Tanjong Pagar, probably numbering about a hundred during the course of the afternoon comprising rail enthusiasts, familiar faces that I met during last year’s frenzy, the curious and some who hail from distant shores, got an opportunity to participate in a guided tour conducted by Dr Lai Chee Kien and learn more about the station and its and the railway’s history.

The main hall during the guided tour – now clear of the Tourism Malaysia hut that had got in the way of achieving a nice perspective in photographs that were taken before the handover.

The open house also allowed some to share some of what they have put together on the station. This included a poignant and very interesting documentary made in 2008, Project 1932, by Zinkie Aw that touches on some of the people who were part of the station’s history. I also had to opportunity to share a series of photographs that I had captured to help me reconnect with the station as it once had been. The series which I named ‘Faces from a forgotten place’ includes once common scenes and once familiar faces, ones that we see now only in the memories we have of a little over a year ago. It is these very memories that I tried to find as I took the opportunity that was presented to explore what I could of the silence. In its emptiness and abandonment, it was not the memories that I was able to find, but ironically, the beauty of the station that I would otherwise not have known – spaces previously occupied and closed to us that even in the state of the two decades of neglect during which time its status had been in limbo is still obvious.

The station in its solitude was able to reveal some of its otherwise hidden beauty.

This beauty that we can still see takes us back to a time when the world had been a different place, to a time when it was thought the station would take its place as the grand southern terminal of the Malayan Railway and the gateway to the Pacific and Indian oceans – a promise that a little over 79 years after it was opened has proven to be one that was never to be fulfilled. What will become of the former station we do not know, its possible second life will be explored in a Design Competition that aims to develop concepts for the future use of the station which has been gazetted as a National Monument, Bukit Timah Railway Station (which has conservation status), and the 26 kilometres of the former Rail Corridor. What I do hope to see would be a use that will not just preserve the memory of the role it was meant to assume and the memories we have of the railway, but also one that with minimum intervention will see it retain not just the beauty that we have seen but also the beauty that has until now been one that has been hidden.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in its solitude

The emptiness that now fills the station offers another perspective of its beauty.

Once hidden spaces that in the station’s abandonment can now be seen, reveal a side of the station that has until now has not been seen by many.

A view out of the window at the white iron fence that lines the station’s boundary with Keppel Road.

The writing on the wall … a memory in an otherwise hidden space of what the station once was …

Recent writings on the wall … collection of wishes for the station written by visitors to the open house.

View through what was a freight forwarder’s office.

A storage area that was used by the canteen operator.

Windows to a forgotten world.

The silence of a once busy space.

More silence ….

Signs of a forgotten time.

The silence of departure (photo taken with Sony Xperia S).

Last act of the day – security personnel trying to close a platform gate that just refused to be closed …


Do visit my series of posts on my previous encounters with the station, the railway and the journeys I have made through the station which can be found at the “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar” page on this site.


An article of that may be of interest in the Chinese newspaper Zaobao published on the 1st of July in which some my views on the preservation of memories connected with the Rail Corridor were sought: http://www.zaobao.com.sg/sp/sp120701_020_2.shtml … I’ll try to get that translated and posted here for the benefit of those that don’t read Chinese.






Segamat on a sleepy afternoon

20 08 2011

I always enjoy a walk around any old part of any town. They usually offer a window into a world that might have once existed, sometimes throwing a few surprises. Taking a quick walk around sleepy old Segamat on a Thursday afternoon took me into that world, a world that may have once existed in Singapore that is now lost to us. It is in walking into gateways into that lost world, where windows into the soul of the place can be peeked into, opening up passageways through the heart of the place, that one can reflect on the world that surrounds you. It was a world that I found myself immersed in in what little time I had, and one that made an impression on me.

Gateways

Windows

Passageways

Reflections

Signs of the times

Patterns





A storm in the southern seas

16 08 2011

A mini storm hit the otherwise sleepy southern seas on the last Thursday in June – a storm of train passengers intent on catching the last train back into Tanjong Pagar on the last day of the station’s operations on the 30th of June. It wasn’t of course the sea that the storm hit but the Nan Yang, which translates into the Southern Seas, in the sleepy town of Segamat in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. The Nan Yang is the name of a coffee shop that is perhaps one of the main tourist attractions in Segamat for the want of one in a place where a single tower block that dominates the town and which has since found use as a tower in which swiftlets are allowed to weave the much sought after nests with their saliva probably serves as a curiosity.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop in Segamat.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop is a favourite of the locals, who seek their once or even twice a day caffeine fix. The coffee shop offers more than the thick black liquid that the locals seem to rave about, and also serves as a place where one can get a quick breakfast or snack of toasted buns or slices of bread served with a generous helping of kaya (a sweetened spread made from coconut and egg and flavoured with pandan leaves and butter), and soft boiled eggs, typical of coffee shop breakfast fare in days when life was a lot simpler, and has now become big business so much so that chains of similar coffee shops are now thriving in the larger towns and cities in Malaysia and also in Singapore.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop can be found in the old part of town in the corner of a two storey pre-war shophouse along Jalan Awang.

The coffee shop is set in the corner of a row of pre-war shop houses in the old part of town on a street, Jalan Awang, that resembles that of many of the smaller towns in Malaysia and perhaps a Singapore we have left behind, just across from the Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah. Just a stone’s throw away from the Segamat Railway Station and Police Station, stepping into the Nan Yang takes you back immediately in time to a world that even with its somewhat sanitised appearance, is one that was typical of a world we in Singapore have forgotten. It is for this, if not the excellent cup of coffee the coffee shop serves, that made the Nan Yang, well worth the visit.

Supposedly the best cup of coffee in Segamat.

The storm in the southern seas.

Offerings that excited the hungry Singaporeans ...

Another view of the Coffee Shop.

An old safe.

Locals enjoying a cup of coffee.





When time did stand still on June 30th

10 08 2011

The 30th of June 2011 was a day on which I was to have taken a final journey out of Tanjong Pagar and had a final homecoming into the station that was at midnight of the following day, cease to function as one. The day was one in which I was caught up in a frenzy of activity that started with me stepping through the grand arches of the station early in the morning and being almost immediately accosted by a media team from a local television channel, having been identified as the perpetrator of the so-called party on the last train into Tanjong Pagar. The journey up to Segamat was no less frenzied as I tried to first catch my last daytime glimpse of the rail corridor from the open door of the train carriage, and then on the way up catching up with friends and acquaintances that had come on the train.

A reflection of the Sin Tong Ah Hotel entrance off a mirror in the Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah along Jalan Awang in Segamat.

It was only at Segamat that peace finally reigned as the various groups decided to head out on their own. After a leisurely lunch in the cool comfort of a restaurant that was recommended by a local friend of one on the train, a coffee and toast at the must visit Kedai Kopi Nan Yang, there was time to wander around and make a few interesting discoveries. It was after all this that most of the group somehow congregated at another coffee shop just across from the Nan Yang to wile the rest of the afternoon away, and it was at that where I suddenly found myself immersed in a fascinating world where time seemed to stand still.

Time stands still over the marble tops of Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah in Segamat.

Sitting at the marble top table with its heavy wooden leg, reminiscent of the tables we were used to seeing in the kopi-tiam (coffee shop) of old, I was also for a while, transported back to days when I could sit and watch the world go by in that half an hour I had before school started some three decades ago. It has probably been as long ago as that since I last thought of passing time in a kopi-tiam as I did at one we referred to as “Smokey’s” along the row of shops of Victoria Building (since demolished) facing Victoria Street, that with a few friends, I would sit, surrounded by walls tiled to half their height. And just as it would have been then, I found my eyes trained on the preparation counter. And just as it might have been back then, half obscured steam which rose from a cauldron of boiling water beside the counter, I watched as the assistant at the counter fulfilled the orders of kopi (coffee), teh (tea), as well as that for toast and half-boiled eggs – a popular choice for breakfast at the kopi-tiam.

A half boiled egg ... a popular item for breakfast in the kopi-tiam of old.

Black sauce often accompanies the eggs.

Busy at the counter - a scene reminiscent of the kopi-tiam where I wasted half an hour away, five days a week.

Reflection off another mirror in the kopi-tiam.

Electrical fittings that take one back in time.

Melamine plates stacked at a stall in the kopi-tiam.

Empty bottles in a crate stacked over crates of unopened bottles of softdrink.

A schoolgril watches her father as he sip on his cup of tea.

Sitting at the table, it felt as time, for a while, seemed to stand very still, as the world within the kopi-tiam moved as if I was watching it pass by me in the slowest of motion. The hour that we were to spend there, did eventually pass, accompanied by the excitement of another group of passengers who had descended on the kopi-tiam to purchase some food for the journey home. It was then time to head back to the train station for that final journey, a journey that was to be the last back through the length (north to south) of Singapore and the last into a station that a little more than 79 years after the first train it saw pulled into one of its platform, was on that evening see a last slow and sad final homecoming.

The passage of time quickened at the end of the hour with many descending on the kopi-tiam to take food away for the return journey.





A final homecoming into Tanjong Pagar

4 08 2011

I was on that last train to pull into Tanjong Pagar, one that brought my fellow passengers and me on a final journey, a final homecoming to a station that would on the stroke of midnight the following day cease to be a station. It was a journey that I had been very deliberate on my part, one that I made to bid farewell to a railway and a station that through many journeys I have made, developed a fondness for.

The journey started rather unevenfully. Clarissa and Pooja looking out of the window half an hour out of Segamat.

The final journey was one of a hundred miles, one that started not so much with one step, but with one tweet that set off a wave of interest in the journey. It started in the sleepy town of Segamat, a hundred miles north of Singapore, where many of the passengers on the same journey had congregated at to board the 1759 Ekspres Sinaran Timur which was scheduled to pull into Tanjong Pagar at 2200 – the very last train to pull into Tanjong Pagar. I was surprised by the punctuality of the train when it arrived – something that my many journeys on the railway had not come to expect. That was a positive sign – as a delay of two hours (which wasn’t uncommon) would probably have meant we would not be pulling into Tanjong Pagar.

A NHK crew chats with crew on the last train into Tanjong Pagar.

The journey started quite uninterestingly, with only the news a fellow passenger received over the telephone that the 1300 northbound from Singapore was way behind schedule creating a buzz. This meant that the load it carried of other would be passengers on the train back in couldn’t get on at Segamat as they had planned to. It was at Kluang that they managed to get off the 1300 and join the train we were on and it was at this point when it got much more lively – party horns blaring and food and drinks being exchanged as passengers mingled around within the narrow confines of the passageway.

A view through the cabin.

It was at Kempas Bahru where I guess most of the excitement began. There was word that a cameraman from one of the media teams with us has fallen off the train (we found out that he managed to get back on and wasn’t hurt). Then a call from a Channel NewsAsia reporter and another from a producer from the same station that they had heard that the train was to terminate at JB Sentral resulted in some initial anxiety. The reporter Satish Chenny had intended to board at JB Sentral with a cameraman to cover the final leg through Singapore. I thought to myself, that what was said was probably just said to deter would be passengers crowding at JB Sentral from trying to board the train and mentioned this to Satish. True enough, Satish could be seen gratefully coming onboard after the immigration officers at JB had cleared the train.

20:57 A Malaysian Immigration officer under the glare of TV lights at JB Sentral.

That little bit of excitement did not really prepare me, and perhaps many of the others on board, for what was to follow, but no before the glare of the camera lights were shone right up my face as I tried to savour the final journey through Singapore as we cleared Singapore immigration and customs at Woodlands from the open door of the carriage. It was at Kranji level crossing that we got the first sign of what was to be amazing scenes along the way – crowds of people gathered at the crossings and at visible stretches of corridor along the way to cheer and send the last train off, as the train chugged on a last southbound journey through the darkness of the night lighted by the green stream of light of a laser shone by a fellow passenger with the sound of the chugging locomotive broken by the sounding of the horn by the train driver at short intervals.

21:09 Across the causeway onto Woodlands Checkpoint from where the final southbound journey through Singapore began.

As the train pulled into Bukit Timah Station at the midway point of the journey, a truly amazing scene greeted the passengers on that last train in – a large cheering mass of people had crowded on the platform at which the train came to a halt, making a short stop to await the passing of the last northbound passenger train. As I stood from the opened door scanning the scene before me in bewilderment, a voice called out to me. There right below where I was on the train as it came to a halt stood a dear friend whom I had met through chasing trains over the final months! We both stood there speechless for a moment and as the surprise of the coincidental encounter wore off, exchanged greetings.

21:52 Waiting at Bukit Timah Station

Many had got on and off as the train waited. Some shook hands with Encik Gani, the station master and others had their photographs taken onboard and on the platform. It was a party-like atmosphere all around us. Soon it was time to make the final fifteen minutes of the journey for the final homecoming, and as we pulled out into the darkness of the Clementi woodland for that final leg, I was struck by the realisation that this would be my last train journey through Singapore and the last one that I will make into that magnificent station that holds so many memories for me … Arriving at the platform, I made my way slowly down to the platform and passed under the clock which read 10:37. That was to be the last of many walks I had made coming off an arriving train, one that I did not for this last time hurry at doing. I was asked by a NHK television crew to say a few final words on the platform as my companions walked ahead of me. In spite of the crowd that had gathered around as I made my way out, it then felt that I was all alone, all alone to face the rush of emotion that accompanied the sadness of the final walk. I continued to make my way in a daze, passing the crowd that had gathered around the Sultan of Johor who stood with tears in his eyes as he spoke to reporters and the crowd. He was to drive the last train out. I paused only to take a quick photograph of the Sultan through the crowd and continued into the main hall. I took one last painful look around, that wasn’t how Tanjong Pagar Railway Station had ever seemed to me, but perhaps one that I would want to remember it as, a station that its final hours had finally got the attention it deserved. It was a day that was certainly one to remember. And although it is one that I will remember with a tinge of sadness, it will be one that comes with the fondness of memories that I have of the trains and of the magnificent station that were to be no more.

22:04 Passengers take the hand of Encik Gani.

22:14 The train leave Bukit Timah Station for the final run into Tanjong Pagar.

22:40 Looking down the platform a couple of minutes after arriving before I start my final walk down the platform.

22:42 A final look back ...

22:42 Walking past a stream of members of the staff and press who were making their way onto to the train for the last journey out.

22:43 The Sultan through the crowd.

10:45 The scene before the last train out of Tanjong Pagar departs.

22:46 Workers rush to remove the last bits of furniture from the already closed canteen.

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