i can’t describe the quiet of that road.
it was dense and light at once, it was old and perhaps came there many many years ago, maybe centuries, and decided to stay on. even as the skyscrapers rose, the mrt lines went underground, the helicopters lifted up straight and went toward the sunset, and the shopping centres got bigger. even as the birds sang on the hooked poles near the hdb block for the aged, and chong pang became famous for its food.
bah soon pah road. i had never heard of it and when i came for a walk around khatib and yishun, i was expecting to stroll through areas thick with hdb blocks, also maybe see a couple of new condos that aj keeps telling me about, but not chance upon a road like this.
we met at khatib mrt station. i asked aj, so what’s the meaning of khatib. he said, it meant prayer leader most likely. i checked the net, it’s an arabic word for the person who gives the sermon during friday prayers and eid. the sermon is called khutbah.
as we headed off in no particular direction, he said, yishun is huge… what do you want to see? i could tell he wanted to take me somewhere, this was his part of town; but since i am his “client,” he always checks with me… letting me take the “decision.”
i said, let’s go wherever you want to go. we bounded off down a pathway surrounded by residential blocks, soon it was a lovely old park with a not too done up feel, a laid back air. aj helpfully pointed out the exact spot where a young couple had flung themselves to their death from a high floor, just about a month ago.
we walked by a community garden and then a football field. past which, down a grassy knoll we reached a road that felt like a back lane actually.
this would connect us to the main sembawang road, aj said. he was sounding excited, he liked the road you could tell. on the right was a secondary school beyond a neat blue and grey steel mesh fence, on the left what looked like the entrance to a farm, some tempos and trucks parked there.
a couple of hundred yards in and the quiet began to spread, all around, then within. once in a way a van or a car went by, not too fast though. i think we saw maybe three or four pedestrians, workers in the farms and nurseries on both sides of the winding slow grey strip. the sky was the blue of dusk with flecks of orangey pink, and you could see a lot of it for no highrise blocked the view. chinese new year is around the corner; streamers of red lanterns were strung up here and there. suddenly a humongous tree. no idea what might be its name. how long, i wondered, it must have taken it to grow that big.
some nurseries gave you a peek at the plants they had. the kumquats and colourful flowers of the approaching new year were right in front. there was an elegance to the lane, the way it bent and swayed and refused to rush anywhere. bah soon pah refers to the well know businessman and philanthropist lim nee soon, who owned rubber and pineapple plantations here and played a major role in the development of sembawang and yishun. he was of teochew descent, and a “baba” peranakan or straits born chinese… he was affectionately called bah soon pah.
in fact, yishun and nee soon come from his name as well. the bosses or towkays of singapore remind me of some of the more established zamindars of calcutta. talk of the cities and one of their names will pop up. once the british decided there was strategic advantage in these places, enterprising businessmen moved in and did things that would change the story of a place. calcutta had lots of traders and entrepreneurs from other indian communities too pouring in; and also foreign trading communities like like jews and armenians. same thing in singapore. lim nee soon was called the “pineapple king”; all around this area were plantations, rural life, kampongs, farmers, kids running around. something of all that is still there in the air.
at the crossing, we decided to turn right toward chong pang, well known for its food centre. singaporeans love good food and are willing to travel long distances to get to a good nasi lemak or chicken rice or laksa or fishball noodle soup or roti prata, something shiok.
we ambled along the sidewalk, evening traffic growing thick on the thoroughfare. on my left was an enclave of mainly single story buildings. the dieppe barracks, aj said, the headquarters of the singapore guards, an elite infantry unit in the singapore armed forces. helicopters hovered above, part of training; their helicopter acts are highly appreciated at the national day parade.
the sprawling, restricted khatib camp was on our left where aj spent his ns or national service years. the food, he reported with a soulful look, had gotten much better now… they even get several rounds of dessert. oliver twist came to mind. national service is a major part of every singaporean man’s life (and his mother’s, if i am to remember the conversations with my friends whose boys are undergoing it… i hope my daughter takes part in the programme too, there are opportunities for girls, but it isn’t mandatory). always while recalling those years, excitement seeps into the raconteur’s voice. there is something fabulous hidden in that time seems to me. and it so bonds the men around here… that and football.
when aj stopped suddenly and said, there there… that’s where the birds sing, i was surprised. i couldn’t see any birds, nor any garden or anything. i realised he was pointing to rows of hook like things that were visible over a wall. it was a bird singing corner. now getting rarer, these are places where songbirds warble and even compete… the birds often cost tens of thousands of dollars. the stories of these birds are wrapped in intrigue, cruelty, greed, and plain beauty i get the feeling.
chong pang was more red than usual with new year decorations on sale everywhere… and the cookies and kuehs of this time. there is a distinct and different feel to the hdb blocks all around, the “100 series” ones are prized older ones… then come the 200, the 300, and so on. the pubs and restaurants near jalan mata ayer, like the a & a restaurant, have been around for years, this was once a hip part of town.
as we reached yishun mrt, we had to remember mas salamat, the terrorist who had planned to explode a bomb at this station. a walk that had started on a rare kind of quiet had to end on an explosion i guess.
but the quiet had a greater hold, it was beautiful.
an hdb block designed for older people.
for more on bah soon pah: https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/tag/bah-soon-pah/
road to singapore, khatib mrt, bah soon pah road, sembawang road, yishun avenue 5, yishun ring road, 12/01/2016 #SG50
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty years 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 anthony john or aj as i call him, my walking partner, and i decided to do fifty walks in the island to celebrate #SG50. well, we didn’t stop at fifty; couldn’t. there was still so much to see and feel and also how not to let the hot, merciless, climate-change sun not have its way with us. so the walks continue, as does the walk talk. hope you enjoy, try to bring an umbrella.