road to singapore

streets of sembawang

bermuda road, canada road, ottawa road, lagos circle, kenya crescent, pakistan road… at some point it strikes you, the empire was right here. the commonwealth, the colonies… never is all that too far away, is it. sometimes, i wonder how it all would have been if colonization was not a part of our history. well, i guess then i would not be writing in this language, nor perhaps living in this city, or going on this walk through the sloping paths of a very green enclave dotted with black and white dwellings under a blazing blue sky.

here in the “north north” of singapore, the british built a huge naval base, hms sembawang, which became operational just before second world war. its graving dock, named after king george the sixth, was more than 300 metres long and it was the largest dry dock in the world at the time, wiki tells me. post independence, the base was handed over to the singapore government, for a token sum of $1, and became a commercial dockyard. the area we were in most likely housed the military and navy personnel working at the base. the roads are free of traffic and have a happy laid back air, a young boy zooms around on his scooty, a car moves along slowly, my daughter tries to climb a tree and insists several shots of this “achievement” be taken, a woman looks at us suspiciously and calls out we’re not allowed to take pictures here. she is caucasian, clearly a foreigner, we wonder about that admonition and continue doing what we’re doing… since there are no signs saying this is a private area.

however, as we walk along we get a sense that this is not exactly a “public” zone either. the mid twentieth century buildings made in the tradition of black and white colonial structures are not all individual residences; some are apartment blocks, some semi detached bungalows; a sense of hierarchy, or to use a very british days word, “quarters” here. looks like non civilian folk reside in these even now. maybe from the american base and elsewhere. more intriguing than that, an ashram on pakistan road. an ashram? i try not to gawk.

we come down sembawang road and turn left into admiralty road east walking past queen’s avenue, king’s avenue, wellington road, funny never found an india road. a lizard sits still on a tree trunk as we amble by peering at passing cars. my boss for many many years, who was nice enough to put up with all my laziness and constant chatter, said since we’d be in his neighbourhood, he’d take us for a drive and buy us lunch at the saf (singapore armed forces) yacht club. my daughter spots his car parked by the road and we leap in.

he takes us to a pretty and utterly peaceful forested corner beyond residential areas. a serene mosque there on jalan mampurong, most kampong like. the penempatan melayu sembawang mosque is about 45 years old and before it stands apparently one of the last rubber trees of sembawang. in the early twentieth century, rubber and pineapple plantations brought employment and development to this part of the island. lim nee soon, a peranakan baba entrepreneur and classic singapore towkay (ze boss), who owned acres of plantations and set up a rubber factory, was key to the growth of this northern stretch; yishun new town nearby is named after him, as is nee soon military camp.

lunch at the seafood restaurant is wonderful of course. the three egg spinach, the steamed garoupa and sambal sotong are happily devoured. we look at the glinting strait of malacca and malaysia on its other shore. on the way to the restaurant we passed “the strip”, a line of pubs that kept servicemen sozzled and happy. many of the watering holes survive, including the famous nelson’s bar.

a curious piece of information i pick up as i search the net for information. the old admiralty house in sembawang was designed by sir edwin lutyens, the same gent who laid out the plan of new delhi, india’s capital, the city of my birth.

it is said, sembawang got its name from the sembawang tree or kayae ferruginea, which was renamed mesua ferruginea.

an interesting article on the history of sembawang: https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/tag/rubber-plantations/

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sembawang road, admiralty road east, bermuda road, ottawa road, lagos circle, canada road, pakistan road, wellington road, 23/07/2015 #SG50

about 18 years ago we moved to singapore from india. this is the country’s fiftieth year of independence. singapore has given me much and i am fascinated by the spirit of this gutsy city state with hardly any land or resources, but oh what dreams and chutzpah (the finest interpretation of the word), the ability to reach big, hunker down and hold and strategise and act and grow. despite my many years here i haven’t seen a lot of the island, which started out at only 28 miles by 18. now of course it’s bigger, thanks to that spirit i spoke of. so i thought why not see singapore in this landmark year, and celebrate SG50. my friend and trainer aj and i traipse in different parts of the city every week. hope you enjoy the walk talk. you’ll find more in my index.

indrani’s index

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