A search for a lost countryside

27 02 2014

Together with several jalan-jalan kaki, I set off on a Sunday morning from Khatib MRT Station in search of a lost countryside. The area in which we sought to find that lost world, is one, that in more recent times has been known to us as Nee Soon and Ulu Sembawang. It was a part of Singapore that I first became acquainted with it in my childhood back in the early 1970s, when an area of rural settlements and village schools that were interspersed with poultry, pig and vegetable farms that awaited discovery along its many minor roads. It was also an area where the British military did  leave much in terms of evidence of their former presence.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

Fed by the waters of several rivers that spilled out into the Straits of Johor or Selat Tebrau, which included Sungei Seletar and its tributaries, Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and its tributaries and Sungei Sembawang, the area was to first attract gambier and pepper plantations in the mid 1800 with which came the first settlements. As with other plantation rich riverine areas of Singapore, the area attracted many Teochew immigrants, becoming one of several Teochew heartlands found across rural Singapore. Pineapple and rubber were to replace gambier and pepper in the 1900s – when the association with the likes of Bukit Sembawang and Lim Nee Soon, names which are now synonymous with the area, was to start.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Much has changed since the days of Chan Ah Lak’s gambier and pepper plantations – for which the area was originally known as Chan Chu Kang, the days of Lim Nee Soon’s pineapple and rubber cultivation and processing exploits, and even from the days when I made my first visits to the area. There are however, parts of it that in which some semblance of the countryside that did once exist can be found, parts where one can quite easily find that much needed escape from the concrete and overly manicured world that now dominates the island.

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)".

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)”.

One of two places where those reminders can be found is the area around Bah Soon Pah Road. The road, strange as it may seem, is in fact named after Lim Nee Soon – Bah Soon having been a nickname stemming from him being a Straits Born Chinese or “Baba”. These days, the truncated Bah Soon Pah Road, is still an area that is very much associated with agriculture, being an area that is at the heart of the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority’s (AVA) efforts to promote agrotechnology in Singapore. Playing host to the Nee Soon Agrotechnology Park, there are several farms to be found along the road, including one in which hydroponic vegetables for the local market are cultivated.

A link with the area's heritage.

Over the fence – a link with the area’s heritage.

An interesting sight along Bah Soon Pah Road is the building that now houses the AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre. The building – a huge bungalow built on stilts, in a style that resembles the “black and white” houses that the British built to house their administrators and senior military men and their families, probably built in the early 1900s with the arrival of the pineapple and rubber plantations, is in fact a physical link to Lim Nee Soon’s association with the area. Sitting atop a small hill – you do get a magnificent view of it from a distance from Yishun Avenue 1, the grand bungalow was I have been advised, a former residence of the assistant manager of Lim Nee Soon’s plantation, thus providing a link to a past that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The AVA's Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager's residence in Lim Nee Soon's estate.

The AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager’s residence in Lim Nee Soon’s estate.

From the west end of Bah Soon Pah Road, we turned north at Sembawang Road – once named Seletar Road. While Seletar today is the area where the former Seletar Airbase, now Seletar Aerospace Park is, Seletar did once refer to a large swathe of land in the north in, particularly so in the days before the airbase was built. The name Seletar is associated the Orang Seletar who inhabited the Straits of Johor, Selat Tebrau, a group of the sea dwellers around the coast and river mouths of northern Singapore and southern Johor from the days before Raffles staked the East India Company’s claim to Singapore. Seletar is a word that is thought to have been derived from the Malay word for strait or selat. Seletar Road, which would have brought travellers on the road to the Naval Base, and to Seletar Pier right at its end, was renamed Sembawang Road in 1939 so as to avoid confusion to road users headed to Seletar Airbase (then RAF Seletar) which lay well to its east. 

The road to the former residence.

The road to the former residence.

The drive down Sembawang Road, up to perhaps the early 1980s, was one that did take you through some wonderful countryside we no longer see anymore. One of my first and memorable trips down the road was in a bus filled with my schoolmates – which turned out to be annual affair whilst I was in primary school. The destination was Sembawang School off Jalan Mata Ayer. where we would be bused to, to support the school’s football team when they played in the finals of the North Zone Primary Schools competition.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon's rubber factory and the surrounding area.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon’s rubber factory further south, and the surrounding area.

The school, the site of which is now occupied by a condominium Euphony Gardens, would be remembered for its single storey buildings – commonly seen in Singapore’s rural areas, as it would be for its football field. The field did somehow seem to have been laid on an incline, a suspicion that was to be confirmed by the difficulty the referee had in placing the ball and preventing it from rolling, when for a penalty kick was awarded during one of the matches.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

The walk from Bah Soon Pah Road to Jalan Mata Ayer, did take us past two military camps. One, Khatib Camp as we know it today, is a more recent addition to the landscape. It would probably be of interest to some, that the original Khatib Camp was one used by the Malaysian military, housing the Tentera Laut Di-Raja Malaysia (TLMD) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) training school KD Pelandok from 1971 to 1980 and was known as Kem Khatib. The Malaysian association with it started in 1964 when it was first set up to house a Malaysian infantry battalion. This came at a time when Singapore was a part of Malaysia.

RMN officers in training at KD Pelandok in Singapore in the 1970s (photograph online at http://farm1.staticflickr.com/167/439314471_c932143651_o.jpg).

Apparently KD Pelandok was where the RMN, who in fact maintained their main base at Woodlands in Singapore until 1979, first carried out their own training of naval officers. Prior to this, naval officers had been sent to the UK to be trained. The camp was returned to Singapore on 2 February 1982, after the training school was shifted to the RMN’s main naval base in Lumut. A new Khatib Camp, now the home of the SAF’s Artillery, was built on the site and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) moved into it in 1983.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

One of the things I remember about the new Khatib Camp in its early days was this helmet shaped roof of its sentry post. Khatib Camp in its early days also housed the SAF Boys School, which later became the SAF Education Centre (SAFEC). The school provided a scheme in which ‘N’-level certificate holders could continue their education fully paid to allow them to complete their ‘O’-levels, after which students would be have to serve a six-year bond out with the SAF. In more recent time, Khatib Camp has been made into one of the centres where NSmen (reservists) would take their annual fitness tests, the IPPT. It is also where the dreaded Remedial Training (RT) programmes are conducted for those who fail to pass the IPPT.

A southward view - there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

A southward view – there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

Across from Khatib Camp, is Dieppe Barracks. Built originally to house British military units, it is now used by the SAF’s HQ Guards, and is one the last former British army camps to retain the word “barracks” in its name – a reminder of its association with the British forces, and also the New Zealand forces. It housed the 1st Battalion of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment from 1971 to 1989 leaving a distinctly New Zealand flavour on the area as well as in the areas of Sembawang up north. This was as part of the protection force first under the ANZUK arrangements that followed the British pullout in 1971. With the Australian forces pulling out in the mid 1970s, the New Zealanders stayed  on as the New Zealand Force South East Asia (NZ Force SEA). One of the things that was hard not to miss on the grounds of the barracks was how different the obstacle course in the open field in the north of the barrack grounds looked from those we did see in the SAF camps then.

Dieppe Barracks when it housed British units in the 1960s (online at http://www.nmbva.co.uk/keith%2012.jpg).

The entrance to Dieppe Barracks seen in the 1980s when it was used by 1 RNZIR with the fence that I so remember (online at http://anzmilitarybratsofsingapore.com/group/gallery/1_20_01_09_5_21_11.jpg).

Just north of Dieppe is where Jalan Mata Ayer can be found (where the school with the inclined football field was). The name “Mata Ayer” is apparently a reference to the source of the now quite well-known Sembawang Hot Springs. The once rural road led to a village called Kampong Mata Ayer, also known as Kampong Ayer Panas, close to the area where the hot spring, now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp, is.

Dieppe Barracks in 1975 (image online at http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/new-zealand-defence-force-headquarters-singapore, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 31-Jan-2014).

Continuing north along the road, there are several clusters of shophouses across the road from where Yishun New Town has come up. Several shops here do in fact have their origins in the villages of the area. One well known business is a traditional Teochew bakery, Gin Thye Cake Maker. Specialising in Teochew pastries, the bakery goes back to 1964 when Mdm. Ang Siew Geck started it in her village home at Bah Soon Pah Road. Described by The Straits Times as the Last of the Teochew bakeries, its biscuits are a popular choice amongst its customers. You would also be able to spot traditional wedding baskets lined up at the top of one of the shelves. The baskets are used by the bakery to deliver traditional sweets – as might have once been the case, for weddings. 

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Not far up from the shophouses, we come to the area where a relatively new Chong Pang Camp is. The camp sits on what once was a very picturesque part of Singapore, Ulu Sembawang. What was visible of the area from Sembawang Road were the fishing ponds and the lush greenery that lay beyond them. The greenery did obscure an area that did lie beyond it, that was particularly rich in bird life and was up to the 1990s, a popular area for birding activities.

Henry Cordeiro UluSembawang

It was an area that we did once get a wonderful view of from Jalan Ulu Sembawang, a road that rose up from close to the back of the then Seletaris bottling plant at its junction with Sembawang Road towards another rural area of villages and farms. The view, from a stretch of the road that ran along a ridge, was what my father did describe as being the most scenic in Singapore that looked across a rolling landscape of vegetable farms for almost as far as the eye could see. Jalan Ulu Sembawang was also one of the roads that led to Lorong Gambas in the Mandai area – an area many who did National Service would remember it as a training area that was used up to perhaps the 1990s.

The end of the road - Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The end of the road – Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

A stop along the way that we did spend some time at was the hot springs, around which there seems now to be much superstition. The spring, which was discovered by a municipal ranger on the property of a Seah Eng Keong in 1908. Seah Eng Keong was the son of gambier and pepper plantation owner Mr Seah Eu Chin who I understand from Claire Leow, one half of the female duo who maintains All Things Bukit Brown and who joined us on the walk, also owned gambier and pepper plantations in the area. Seah Eu Chin would also be well known as being the founder of the Ngee Ann Kongsi.

The surviving well of the spring.

The surviving well of the spring.

The spring water was over the years, bottled in various ways and under various names, first by Mr Seah, and then by Fraser and Neave (F&N) from 1921. One of the names its was bottled as was Zombun which was, on the evidence of a newspaper article, a source of a joke – with waiters referring to “Air Zombun” as a similar sounding “Air Jamban” or water from the toilet in Malay.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

Bottling was to be disrupted by the war – the Japanese, known for their fondness for thermal baths, were said to have built such baths at the hot springs – the water, which flows out at around 66 degrees Celcius, with its strong sulphur content (which is evident from the unmistakable smell you would be able to get of it), is thought to have curative properties – especially for skin and rheumatic conditions.  It’s flow was disrupted by allied bombing in November 1944 and it was only in 1967 that F&N started re-bottling the water under a subsidiary Semangat Ayer Limited using the brand name Seletaris (now the name of a condominium that sits on the site of the plant).

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

While it did remain the property of F&N, many were known to have bathed at the spring before 1967 and also again after the plant was closed in the mid 1980s, when its land was acquired by the government. The spring – with water now running out of pipes and taps, in now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp – which initially meant that it was closed to the public. Since May 2002 however, after petitions were submitted to the authorities, the spring has been opened to the public. Access to the spring is now through a fenced pathway that cuts into the camp’s grounds. A warning is scribbled on the red brick structure that surrounds a surviving well that speaks of a curse – that anyone who vandalises the hot spring will be the subject of a curse.

The writing on the wall - a curse for any would be vandals.

The writing on the wall – a curse for any would be vandals.

From the spring and Jalan Ulu Sembawang, now a stub that leads to a wooded area where development doesn’t seem very far away – an international school is already being built there, we can to the end of the adventure. While it is sad to see how another place in Singapore which holds the memories of the gentle world I once enjoyed as a child has been transformed into another place I struggle to connect with; I did at least manage to find a few things that does, in some way remind of that old world that I miss. Developments in the area are however taking off at a furious pace and with the construction of elevated portion of the North-South Expressway that is due to start next year and will have a significant impact on the area’s landscape; it may not be long before it does become another place of beauty that we have abandoned in favour of a cold and overly manicured landscape in which there will be little left, except for “heritage” markers, to remind us of what it did once mean to us.

It now is a wooded area awaiting future development.

Jalan Ulu Sembawang is now is an area reclaimed by nature awaiting future development.

Where a school is now being built - the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.

Where a school is now being built – the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.

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Light after dark (The West End)

28 08 2013

A view along the Straits of Johor, in the area where the Malaysian Navy had once maintained a base which served as their main base until 1979, some 15 years following the separation of Singapore from Malaysia. The view, taken at 7.41 pm on 25 August 2013, is one taken across what would have been the west end of the huge British naval base towards what would have been Rotherham Gate to the left of the picture, the Causeway in the middle and Johor Bahru in Malaysia to the right. The jetty seen in the photograph is the Shell or Woodlands Jetty which is still in use. The area is one I made a first acquaintance with back in the early 1970s, after the area had been opened up following the withdrawal of British forces in 1971. That was when the since demolished derelict Ruthenia Oiling Jetty, served as one of two places along Singapore’s northern coastline to which my father would take me to drop crab nets from. The area has since been remade and is now referred to as the Woodlands Waterfront.

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Last post standing

16 07 2012

Standing somewhat forgotten and hidden under the roots of a tree is a marker of what used to be the perimeter of what had once been described as the largest naval base east of the Suez – the Royal Navy base at Sembawang that extended for some six and a half kilometres as the crow flies from Woodlands (close to the Causeway) to Sembawang (where Sembawang Park is today). The marker, a gate post belonging to the former Rotherham Gate, the northernmost gate into the former base, is the last remnant of several entrances into the huge naval facility that had once been the pride of the British Empire and a significant source of employment for residents of Singapore.

Rotherham Gate in the 1960s (source: Derek Tait).

The gate located at the western edge of the Naval Base and one of the main entrances into the base (the others being Sembawang Gate and Canberra Gate to the east and the southeast) was renamed as the Rotherham Gate in 1945 in commemoration of the role of the Commander of the RN Destroyer HMS Rotherham in the acceptance of the surrender of men from the Japanese Imperial Navy at the Naval Base in September 1945. Along with the other gates, the gate was manned by security personnel deployed by the Royal Navy stationed at the guard-houses that had once stood by the entrances, right until the end of October 1971 when British Forces formally withdrew from Singapore. Remnants of some of the gates in the form of gate posts and guard posts had in fact stood for some time after including that of the Rotherham Gate. Based on an account by a former resident of the base, Mr Kamal Abu Serah, the guard-house that had stood inside the gate had actually housed a provision shop after the opening up of the Naval Base in 1971.

The area where the Rotherham Gate once stood. The last post standing is now gripped tightly by a tree which has taken root on the post.

Hidden behind the roots of a tree and parasitic plants which have also taken root on the tree is the last post standing … close examination reveals a rectangular concrete column beneath the tree’s roots.

The gate post today, serves as a marker of the western end of what is the recent redeveloped Woodlands Waterfront , an area that for a long while had been left behind by the pace of redevelopment that has swept through much of the rest of Singapore. The area had after the opening up of the Naval Base, long been a haunt for anglers and was in fact one of the places that I frequented in the 1970s for fishing and to catch crabs. A derelict jetty which was missing most of its deck planks had been one of two jetties that my father sometimes took me to. The jetty, the old Ruthenia Oiling jetty (which my father had referred to as the Naval Base jetty) has since been demolished. It was one of several jetties that jutted out of the coastline in the area, the only one that was accessible to the public in the 1970s and became quite a popular spot for crab fishing before it was demolished. The other jetties were the Customs Jetty, the Shell Jetty (Woodlands Jetty), and the large L-shaped jetty that was used by the Royal Malaysian Navy – the Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia (TLDM).

Parts of a 1968 map showing the location of the Rotherham Gate, the perimeter fencing and the position of the four jetties in the area (source: Ms Nora Abdul Rahman).

The TLDM had maintained not just a large jetty in the area – Woodlands had in fact hosted the main base of the TLDM, KD Malaya, up until 1979, the base having first been established in 1949 with the setting up of the Malayan Naval Forces (MNF). The TLDM continued to operate KD Malaya as a training facility even after the shift of the main naval base to Lumut up until December 1997 together with the jetty. The jetty has since been incorporated as part of the Woodlands Waterfront redevelopment and is now opened to the public. Both the jetty and the former TLDM barracks, which can be seen along Admiralty Road West, remain as a reminder of the Malaysian navy’s long-standing presence in what was an independent Singapore.

Part of the former TLDM jetty, now opened to the public, seen at dusk.

The view across the straits to Malaysia … Malaysia operated a Naval Base across the straits in Singapore up until 1997.

In between the Shell Jetty and the former TLDM Jetty is where a river, Sungei Cina, spills into the sea. Sungei Cina, for most part, still has its natural banks. The vegetation that one finds along its banks is probably representative of the vegetation which would have been found along much of the swampy shoreline that had existed before extensive reclamation work during part of the ten years it took to construct the base in between 1928 to 1938 – construction which saw substantial parts of the coastal swampland filled with earth – some of which came from excavation work around where the Naval Dockyard was being constructed to the east of the Naval Base. A large part of the land on which the Naval Base had been built was that which had acquired by the Straits Settlements from belonged to the Bukit Sembawang rubber estate and given to the Royal Navy for its use. The huge excavations around the area of the Naval Dockyard was not just to provide a dockyard that since 1968 has been used by Sembawang Shipyard, it also provided the largest naval graving (dry) dock in the world when it was opened in February 1938 – the King George VI dock (known also as ‘KG6’) which is still one of the largest dry docks in South East Asia.

A swamp once extended along the shoreline of what is now the well manicured Woodlands Waterfront – a waterfront that even before its redevelopment has attracted many anglers to the area. The Senoko Power Station and the Shell Jetty can be seen at the far end of the shoreline.

Vegetation along the banks of Sungei Cina is probably representative of the vegetation found along the coastline before the Naval Base was constructed.

Speaking of the graving dock, it has been reported that a ‘keramat tree’ was said to have been responsible for a delay in its completion, as a consequence, the completion of Naval Base. The ‘keramat tree’ had been a lone tree standing (after the rubber trees around it had already been cleared) on a hill which needed to be leveled to allow the graving dock to be constructed. The coolies assigned to cut the tree, which was thought to have stood where the top of the graving dock now is, could not be persuaded to do so, believing the tree to be occupied by evil spirits. An anonymous letter was said to have mysteriously appeared carrying a warning that if a certain sum of money was not paid to allow gifts to be offered to appease the spirits, three heads of the firm involved would die. The warning wasn’t heeded and the tree eventually blown up and an increase in malaria cases followed which was put down to the act. That wasn’t all, as was predicted, three untimely deaths did follow – that of an agent for the contractors, the managing director and a sub-agent.

A photograph of KG6 with the Queen Mary docked in it in August 1940 (source: Australian War Memorial – ‘Copyright expired – public domain’). The construction of the dock had been delayed by the refusal of coolies to remove what was referred to as the ‘keramat tree’.

The tree that has taken root on the last gate post does perhaps serve to remind us of the tree that had had resisted the base’s construction. It does however serve, more importantly, to remind us of more than that, preserving within the tight grasp of it roots a memory of the wider area’s association with a huge and strategic naval facility. The facility was one that, large enough to accommodate half of the British Empire’s fleet, provided jobs to one in ten in Singapore accounting for one-fifth of its GDP at the time and one that should not be forgotten.